New Horizons may have seen a glow at the solar system’s edge

The ultraviolet signal may mark a wall of hydrogen where the sun’s influence wanes

hydrogen wall illustration

HELLO FROM THE OTHER SIDE  The sun’s journey through the galaxy may build a wall of hydrogen near the edge of the solar system (curved line to the left of this illustration). The New Horizons spacecraft may have seen evidence of just such a wall.

Adler Planetarium/IBEX/NASA

The New Horizons spacecraft has spotted an ultraviolet glow that seems to emanate from near the edge of the solar system. That glow may come from a long-sought wall of hydrogen that represents where the sun’s influence wanes, the New Horizons team reports online August 7 in Geophysical Research Letters.

“We’re seeing the threshold between being in the solar neighborhood and being in the galaxy,” says team member Leslie Young of the Southwest Research Institute, based in Boulder, Colo.

Even before New Horizons flew past Pluto in 2015 (SN: 8/8/15, p. 6), the spacecraft was scanning the sky with its ultraviolet telescope to look for signs of the hydrogen wall. As the sun moves through the galaxy, it produces a constant stream of charged particles called the solar wind, which inflates a bubble around the solar system called the heliosphere. Just beyond the edge of that bubble, around 100 times farther from the sun than the Earth, uncharged hydrogen atoms in interstellar space should slow when they collide with solar wind particles. That buildup of hydrogen, or wall, should scatter ultraviolet light in a distinctive way.

The two Voyager spacecraft saw signs of such light scattering 30 years ago. One of those craft has since exited the heliosphere and punched into interstellar space (SN: 10/19/13, p. 19).

New Horizons is the first spacecraft in a position to double-check the Voyagers’ observations. It scanned the ultraviolet sky seven times from 2007 to 2017, space scientist Randy Gladstone of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and colleagues report. As the spacecraft traveled, it saw the ultraviolet light change in a way that supports the decades-old observations. All three spacecraft saw more ultraviolet light farther from the sun than expected if there is no wall. But the team cautions that the light could also be from an unknown source farther away in the galaxy.

“It’s really exciting if these data are able to distinguish the hydrogen wall,” says space scientist David McComas of Princeton University, who was not involved in the new work. That could help figure out the shape and variability of the solar system’s boundary (SN: 5/27/17, p. 15).

After New Horizons flies past the outer solar system object Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day 2019 (SN Online: 3/14/18), the spacecraft will continue to look for the wall about twice each year until the mission’s end, hopefully 10 to 15 years from now, Gladstone says.

If the ultraviolet light drops off at some point, then New Horizons may have left the wall in its rear view mirror. But if the light never fades, then its source could be farther ahead — coming from somewhere deeper in space, says team member Wayne Pryor of Central Arizona College in Coolidge.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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