Alien matter in the solar system: A galactic mismatch

Feb 13, 2012 by Dr. Tony Phillips
Alien matter in the solar system: A galactic mismatch
An artist's concept of Voyager approaching the edge of the solar system.

This just in: The Solar System is different from the space just outside it.

Researchers announced the finding at a press conference on Jan. 31, 2012. It’s based on data from NASA’s IBEX spacecraft, which is able to sample material flowing into the from .

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
a ScienceCast video about IBEX's measurements of "alien matter" in the solar system

“We’ve detected alien matter that came into our solar system from other parts of the galaxy--and, chemically speaking, it’s not exactly like what we find here at home.” says David McComas the principal investigator for IBEX at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

Our solar system is surrounded by the heliosphere, a magnetic bubble that separates us from the rest of the Milky Way. Outside the heliosphere lies the realm of the stars or “interstellar space”; inside lies the sun and all the planets. The sun blows this vast magnetic bubble using the solar wind to inflate the sun’s own magnetic field. It’s a good thing: The heliosphere helps protect us from cosmic rays that would otherwise penetrate the solar system.

Launched in 2008, the IBEX spacecraft spins in Earth orbit scanning the entire sky. IBEX’s special trick is detecting neutral atoms that slip through the heliosphere’s magnetic defenses. Without actually exiting the solar system, IBEX is able to sample the galaxy outside.

The first two years of counting these alien atoms have led to some interesting conclusions:

"We've directly measured four separate types of atoms from interstellar space and the composition just doesn't match up with what we see in the solar system," says Eric Christian, mission scientist for IBEX at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Among the four types of atoms detected—H, He, O and Ne—the last one, neon, serves as a particularly useful reference. “Neon is a noble gas, so it doesn’t react with anything. And it’s relatively abundant, so we can measure it with good statistics,” explains McComas.

Using data from IBEX, the researchers team compared the neon-to-oxygen ratio inside vs. outside the heliosphere. In a series of six science papers appearing in the Astrophysical Journal, they reported that for every 20 neon atoms in the galactic wind, there are 74 oxygen atoms. In our own solar system, however, for every 20 neon atoms there are 111 oxygen atoms.

That translates to more oxygen in any given slice of the solar system than in local interstellar space.

Where did the extra oxygen come from?

“There are at least two possibilities," says McComas. "Either the solar system evolved in a separate, more oxygen-rich part of the galaxy than where we currently reside or a great deal of critical, life-giving oxygen lies trapped in interstellar dust grains or ices, unable to move freely throughout space—and thus undetectable by IBEX."

Either way, this affects scientific models of how our solar system – and life – formed.

“It’s a real puzzle,” he says.

While IBEX samples alien from Earth orbit, NASA’s Voyager spacecraft have been traveling to the edge of the heliosphere for nearly 40 years—and they could soon find themselves on the outside looking in. Researchers expect Voyager 1 to exit the solar system within the next few years. The new data from suggest the Voyagers are heading for a new frontier, indeed.

Explore further: Cosmic rays threaten future deep-space astronaut missions

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Cosmic rays threaten future deep-space astronaut missions

46 minutes ago

Crewed missions to Mars remain an essential goal for NASA, but scientists are only now beginning to understand and characterize the radiation hazards that could make such ventures risky, concludes a new paper ...

MAVEN studies passing comet and its effects

3 hours ago

NASA's newest orbiter at Mars, MAVEN, took precautions to avoid harm from a dust-spewing comet that flew near Mars today and is studying the flyby's effects on the Red Planet's atmosphere.

How to safely enjoy the October 23 partial solar eclipse

3 hours ago

2014 – a year rich in eclipses. The Moon dutifully slid into Earth's shadow in April and October gifting us with two total lunars. Now it's the Sun's turn. This Thursday October 23 skywatchers across much ...

How to grip an asteroid

3 hours ago

For someone like Edward Fouad, a junior at Caltech who has always been interested in robotics and mechanical engineering, it was an ideal project: help develop robotic technology that could one day fly on ...

Image: Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

6 hours ago

It was 45 years ago when astronomer Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, one of his researchers, unwittingly began a new chapter in the history of space exploration.

Extreme ultraviolet image of a significant solar flare

6 hours ago

The sun emitted a significant solar flare on Oct. 19, 2014, peaking at 1:01 a.m. EDT. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which is always observing the sun, captured this image of the event in extreme ultraviolet ...

User comments : 21

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

baudrunner
1 / 5 (3) Feb 13, 2012
That is a very fascinating puzzle. One might want to think that there should be a prevalence of neon inside the solar system because the atmosphere of the sun is largely made up of neon plasma. There is some kind of reorganization of the elements over the vast scope of the environment being studied that we probably should not correlate too much with what happens in the confines of a laboratory.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (3) Feb 13, 2012
A non-scientific person might say that neon appears to be in the habit of rising to the surface.
Kinedryl
1 / 5 (2) Feb 13, 2012
Comets from Oort cloud are visiting solar system regularly - so it's nothing strange about it. http://sohowww.na...1024.jpg
marraco
1 / 5 (1) Feb 13, 2012
Maybe we are just crossing a region of the galaxy poor in oxygen.
Lurker2358
1.6 / 5 (7) Feb 13, 2012
Of course, you realize this is a problem for the Standard Model for Solar System formation.

If the SS formed due to a nearby supernova's shockwave and remnants merging with and collapsing a nebula, then the composition of the SS should be similar to the outside of the SS.

Same thing for the standard model of stellar formation.

Most of the stars in the galaxy are SUPPOSEDLY second generation stars, which means that if you consider all the supernovas that should have happened from similar processes, the composition of the galaxy should be mostly evenly distributed of the same isotope and element ratios everywhere (except directly inside of stars, and what can be explained by radioactivity).

20/74 vs 20/111 is a pretty darn big difference, a factor of 50% actually.
Lurker2358
1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 13, 2012
Maybe we are just crossing a region of the galaxy poor in oxygen.


Oxygen is one of the most abundent elements actually observed being ejected from supernovas.

It should be very reliably distributed if most of the existing stars are supposedly second generation.

Now not all explosions are symetrical, but the Galaxy is largely symetrical.

I'm assuming this experiment looked in every direction and took averages, to avoid some anomaly in one tiny area outside the SS.
LuckyBrandon
1 / 5 (2) Feb 13, 2012
Comets from Oort cloud are visiting solar system regularly - so it's nothing strange about it. http://sohowww.na...1024.jpg


what does that matter? the oort cloud is in our solar system....
NotAsleep
not rated yet Feb 13, 2012
One might want to think that there should be a prevalence of neon inside the solar system because the atmosphere of the sun is largely made up of neon plasma.

I've never heard that before, do you have a source for the information?
thales
not rated yet Feb 13, 2012
Oxygen (O2) is heavier than Neon. Wouldn't there be sorting by mass near any solar system? For example, maybe oxygen is more likely than neon to fall into the system (from the local interstellar medium).
Lurker2358
1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 13, 2012
Oxygen (O2) is heavier than Neon. Wouldn't there be sorting by mass near any solar system? For example, maybe oxygen is more likely than neon to fall into the system (from the local interstellar medium).


Let's see, who was it that disproved that...oh Galileo, or Newton, whichever.

Neglecting air resistance, objects of different mass and density fall at the same rate.

A ton of feathers falls at the same rate as a ton of bricks if in vaccuum.

The mass of the atom is irrelevant.
SoylentGrin
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 13, 2012
The mass of the atom is irrelevant


Not quite. It's why dense, rocky worlds are closer to a primary than the gas giants. Heavier elements, such as iron, stay closer in on the accretion disk.
It's not a matter of falling, it's a matter of spinning. If you put heavy and light objects on a record platter and spin it, the lighter objects travel further, faster.
malt
3 / 5 (2) Feb 14, 2012
There are some theories that suggest that our solar system may be from a different parent galaxy than the milky way, that is currently being pulled into the milky way by it's stronger gravity.

Considering this possibility, we would be passing through the milky way spiral arm, and finding that the composition / distribution of elements within our solar system, being protected by the suns heliosphere, would differ substantially from that of the interstellar medium of the milky way galaxy.
Osiris1
1 / 5 (4) Feb 14, 2012
I read somewhere that our system is part of the Saggitarius Dwarf Galaxy that is now being absorbed by the Milky Way. That would make US the aliens here.
kevinrtrs
1 / 5 (5) Feb 14, 2012
Comets from Oort cloud are visiting solar system regularly - so it's nothing strange about it. http://sohowww.na...1024.jpg

Perhaps one needs to find evidence for the existence of said "Oort cloud" first before being so sure about it affecting the composition of neon to oxygen content in the solar system....
kevinrtrs
1.4 / 5 (7) Feb 14, 2012
I read somewhere that our system is part of the Saggitarius Dwarf Galaxy that is now being absorbed by the Milky Way. That would make US the aliens here.

One problem with such a theory is that the sun's orbit around the center of the galaxy is almost completely circular, hence our solar system is not subject to violent swings in cosmic radiation which would have occurred [and had evidence on earth] if we were just passing through. This cosmic bombardment would have occurred in spite of the protection afforded by the heliosphere.
rubberman
1 / 5 (1) Feb 14, 2012
Comets from Oort cloud are visiting solar system regularly - so it's nothing strange about it. http://sohowww.na...1024.jpg

Perhaps one needs to find evidence for the existence of said "Oort cloud" first before being so sure about it affecting the composition of neon to oxygen content in the solar system....


DONE!

http://www.solars...belt.htm

There were only 246999 other sites that had the info....
animah
not rated yet Feb 15, 2012
Kevinrtrs believes the Oort cloud and the Kuiper belt don't exist because it is inconvenient to some divinity.

Patience Kevin! NASA's New Horizons mission is already halfway there. You will know soon enough what your beliefs are worth.
Lurker2358
1 / 5 (5) Feb 18, 2012
The mass of the atom is irrelevant


Not quite. It's why dense, rocky worlds are closer to a primary than the gas giants. Heavier elements, such as iron, stay closer in on the accretion disk.
It's not a matter of falling, it's a matter of spinning. If you put heavy and light objects on a record platter and spin it, the lighter objects travel further, faster.


centrifuge (sntr-fyj)
A machine that separates substances of different densities in a sample by rotating the sample at very high speed, causing the substance to be displaced outward, sometimes through a series of filters or gratings. Denser substances tend to be displaced from the center more than ones that are less dense.

yeah, that's why laboratory centrifuges produce the exact opposite result of the mainstream theory of solar system formation.

Try again.

Because when rotating perpendicular to a native gravity field, friction and fluid dynamics is important. cont...
Lurker2358
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2012
In space, where there is little or no collision, both particles should behave the same way.

Now it's true that if a hydrogen atom is hit by a photon, it will be accelerated more than say, an oxygen atom, since the oxygen atom is more massive.

Then again, an oxygen atom is much larger in cross-sectional area, and is probably about twice as likely to be struck by a photon as is a hydrogen atom.

In any case, gravity and centrifugal force are not the culprits for any sorting of atoms in near-vacuum conditions.
fmfbrestel
not rated yet Feb 19, 2012
Neon has about a 50% higher ionization energy than Oxygen. It would seem to me then that Neon should be getting deflected by our SS's magnetic field less than Oxygen.

Just a thought. I cant back that up. Can someone confirm or deny that for me? Thanks.
SoylentGrin
not rated yet Feb 20, 2012
A machine that separates substances of different densities in a sample by rotating the sample at very high speed


Very high speed. Ultracentrifuges aren't the same process as accretion discs.

Put a heavy sphere and a light sphere on a disc, then slowly start ramping up the speed. What happens is the light spheres spin out faster and farther before the heavy spheres move at all.
Now imagine a solar system size platter, that isn't spinning (relatively) that fast, certainly not spinning as a scaled up ultracentrifuge, and with each clump of matter lightly attracted to each other, with heavier lumps more attracted than the light ones, and you get dense matter staying near the center and lighter matter getting spun out further.
Just like we see in the solar system.