Scientists Explore Galactic Frontier, Release First-Ever All-Sky Map (w/ Video)

October 15, 2009
Arrival of interstellar hydrogen, helium, and oxygen atoms as seen in the IBEX-Lo sky maps. The Sun's gravitation deflects the interstellar wind away from its original arrival direction, i.e. coming from the nose of the heliosphere. (Image by the University of New Hampshire and Boston University)

( -- NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, spacecraft has made it possible for scientists to construct the first comprehensive sky map of our solar system and its location in the Milky Way galaxy. The new view will change the way researchers view and study the interaction between our galaxy and sun.

The sky map was produced with data that two detectors on the collected during six months of observations. The detectors measured and counted particles scientists refer to as energetic neutral atoms.

The video will load shortly
This animation portrays how the entire sky is flattened to the two-dimensional maps that IBEX presents. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

The energetic neutral atoms are created in an area of our known as the interstellar boundary region. This region is where charged particles from the sun, called the solar wind, flow outward far beyond the orbits of the planets and collide with material between stars. The energetic neutral atoms travel inward toward the sun from at velocities ranging from 100,000 mph to more than 2.4 million mph. This interstellar boundary emits no light that can be collected by conventional telescopes.

The new map reveals the region that separates the nearest reaches of our galaxy, called the local interstellar medium, from our heliosphere -- a protective bubble that shields and protects our solar system from most of the dangerous cosmic radiation traveling through space.

The video will load shortly
This animation zooms in from a view of the Milky Way Galaxy to our heliosphere. It sets the scale for our home in the galaxy. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

"For the first time, we're sticking our heads out of the sun's atmosphere and beginning to really understand our place in the galaxy," said David J. McComas, principal investigator and assistant vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "The IBEX results are truly remarkable, with a narrow ribbon of bright details or emissions not resembling any of the current theoretical models of this region."

NASA released the sky map image Oct. 15 in conjunction with publication of the findings in the journal Science. The IBEX data were complemented and extended by information collected using an imaging instrument sensor on NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Cassini has been observing Saturn, its moons and rings since the spacecraft entered the planet's orbit in 2004.

The IBEX sky maps also put observations from NASA's Voyager spacecraft into context. The twin Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, traveled to the outer solar system to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. In 2007, Voyager 2 followed Voyager 1 into the . Both spacecraft are now in the midst of this region where the energetic neutral atoms originate. However, the IBEX results show a ribbon of bright emissions undetected by the two Voyagers.

The video will load shortly
IBEX simultaneously creates 14 maps of the sky at different energies. This animation shows several different maps, revealing an unexpectedly bright ribbon-like emission in each. Credit: Southwest Research Institute (SwRI)

"The Voyagers are providing ground truth, but they're missing the most exciting region," said Eric Christian, the IBEX deputy mission scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "It's like having two weather stations that miss the big storm that runs between them."

The IBEX spacecraft was launched in October 2008. Its science objective was to discover the nature of the interactions between the and the interstellar medium at the edge of our solar system. The Southwest Research Institute developed and leads the mission with a team of national and international partners. The spacecraft is the latest in NASA's series of low-cost, rapidly developed Small Explorers Program. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

This image illustrates one possible explanation for the bright ribbon of emission seen in the IBEX map. The galactic magnetic field shapes the heliosphere as it drapes over it. The ribbon appears to trace the area where the magnetic field is most parallel to the surface of the heliosphere (the heliopause). Credit: Adler Planetarium/Southwest Research Institute (SwRI)

More information:

N. A. Schwadron, M. Bzowski, G. B. Crew, M. Gruntman, H. Fahr, H. Fichtner, P. C. Frisch, H. O. Funsten, S. Fuselier, J. Heerikhuisen, V. Izmodenov, H. Kucharek, M. Lee, G. Livadiotis, D. J. McComas, E. Moebius, T. Moore, J. Mukherjee, N.V. Pogorelov, C. Prested, D. Reisenfeld, E. Roelof, G.P. Zank, "Comparison of Interstellar Boundary Explorer Observations with 3-D Global Heliospheric Models," Science Express, Oct. 15, 2009.

H.O. Funsten, F. Allegrini, G.B. Crew, R. DeMajistre, P.C. Frisch, S.A. Fuselier, M. Gruntman, P. Janzen, D.J. McComas, E. Möbius, B. Randol, D.B. Reisenfeld, E.C. Roelof, N.A. Schwadron, "Structures and Spectral Variations of the Outer Heliosphere in IBEX Energetic Neutral Atom Maps," Science Express, Oct. 15, 2009.

D.J. McComas, F. Allegrini1, P. Bochsler, M. Bzowski, E.R. Christian, G.B.Crew, R. DeMajistre, H. Fahr, H. Fichtner, P.C. Frisch, H.O. Funsten, S. A. Fuselier, G. Gloeckler, M. Gruntman, J. Heerikhuisen, V. Izmodenov, P.J anzen, P. Knappenberger, S. Krimigis, H. Kucharek, M. Lee, G. Livadiotis, S. Livi, R.J. MacDowall, D. Mitchell, E. Möbius, T. Moore, N.V. Pogorelov, D. Reisenfeld, E. Roelof, L. Saul, N.A. Schwadron, P.W. Valek, R. Vanderspek, P. Wurz, G.P. Zank, "Global Observations of the Interstellar Interaction from the Interstellar Boundary Explorer-IBEX", Science Express, Oct. 15, 2009.

Provided by JPL/NASA (news : web)

Explore further: NASA launches probe to study edge of solar system (Update)

Related Stories

NASA launches probe to study edge of solar system (Update)

October 19, 2008

NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer mission, or IBEX, successfully launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean at 1:47 p.m. EDT, Sunday. IBEX will be the first spacecraft to image and map dynamic interactions ...

NASA spacecraft ready to explore outer solar system

October 6, 2008

The first NASA spacecraft to image and map the dynamic interactions taking place where the hot solar wind slams into the cold expanse of space is ready for launch Oct. 19. The two-year mission will begin from the Kwajalein ...

SwRI Will Lead Interstellar Boundary Explorer Mission

February 2, 2005

NASA has chosen Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI) to lead the first mission to image the outer boundaries of the solar system, the region separating our solar system from interstellar space. The Interstellar Boundary ...

Voyager 2 proves solar system is squashed

December 10, 2007

NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft has followed its twin Voyager 1 into the solar system's final frontier, a vast region at the edge of our solar system where the solar wind runs up against the thin gas between the stars.

Novel diamond-like films on board NASA satellite

February 16, 2009

( -- Diamond-like carbon films created at Sandia National Laboratories are helping probe the far boundaries of the solar system as part of a NASA mission to study how the sun's solar wind interacts with the interstellar ...

Recommended for you

NASA missions harvest a passel of 'pumpkin' stars

October 27, 2016

Astronomers using observations from NASA's Kepler and Swift missions have discovered a batch of rapidly spinning stars that produce X-rays at more than 100 times the peak levels ever seen from the sun. The stars, which spin ...

A dead star's ghostly glow

October 27, 2016

The eerie glow of a dead star, which exploded long ago as a supernova, reveals itself in this NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of the Crab Nebula. But don't be fooled. The ghoulish-looking object still has a pulse. Buried ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Oct 15, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Oct 15, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
4 / 5 (1) Oct 16, 2009
I knew the electric universe cosmology folks would have a field day with this article the second I saw the intragalactic B-field plotted against the heliosphere and ENA emissions.

Can't wait for follow up studies/experiments/missions.

Reality is always so much stranger than fiction!
1 / 5 (1) Oct 16, 2009
I knew the electric universe cosmology folks would have a
Reality is always so much stranger than fiction!

Like dark matter/energy, yes they like fiction a bit to much :)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.