Sun @ 1:33 pm
It sounds like something out of Star Trek, but it's all too real: a few months ago NASA's IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) spacecraft discovered a giant ribbon of atomic particles floating at the edge of our solar system.
Nothing like the space ribbon has ever been seen before, and when NASA scientists first saw the data, they were stunned. As they double-checked the data and determined that the readings were in not in error, and as they realized the immense size of what they were beholding, they may well have had the same creeping sense of horror and awe as when it gradually dawned on the cast of Star Wars that they were seeing the Death Star.
NASA found itself in the nervous position of having to publicly admit that there was something huge, radioactive and invisible out there, right by our own solar system, and we have no clue what it's doing there. Not only that, but both our previous Voyager deep-space probes failed to detect it. "This is a shocking new result," said IBEX principal investigator Dave McComas. "We had no idea this ribbon existed - or what has created it."
The current attempt to explain the mysterious ribbon is a theory that it's a reflection of solar wind particles being reflected back into the solar system by a galactic magnetic field. They've whipped up a mathematical model that, made to order, predicts a boomerang shaped barrier much like the one that is baffling astronomers. Not everyone agrees with the theory, however, and we can probably expect much wrangling, arguing, and forehead-smiting for a long time to come.
"This is an important finding," says Arik Posner, IBEX program scientist, quoted on NASA's website. "Interstellar space just beyond the edge of the solar system is mostly unexplored territory. Now we know, there could be a strong, well-organized magnetic field sitting right on our doorstep."
What this means for Earth's future is uncertain. As the latest NASA article on the space ribbon states:
And upon this field, the future may hinge.
The solar system is passing through a region of the Milky Way filled with cosmic rays and interstellar clouds. The magnetic field of our own sun, inflated by the solar wind into a bubble called the "heliosphere," substantially protects us from these things. However, the bubble itself is vulnerable to external fields. A strong magnetic field just outside the solar system could press against the heliosphere and interact with it in unknown ways. Will this strengthen our natural shielding - or weaken it? No one can say.
These discoveries about the outer fringe of our solar system come at a time when new NASA revelations have piled up so fast and so frequently that our paradigm is completely changing again and again without the general public even really being aware. Most of us grew up being told in school that there were nine, maybe ten, planets in the solar system, and we now know that there are hundreds of thousands of them. And far from being chunky bits of asteroid debris as previously believed, we now know that many of them are spherical and even have their own moons, like the planet Pulcova or the planet Haumea or the astonishingly Earth-like planet Ceres.
It's a whole new ball game in space.