No long, twisted tail trails the solar system

Bubble inflated by particles from the sun is spherical, not comet-shaped, study shows


A TALE OF NO TAIL  Data from the Voyager and Cassini spacecraft suggest that the heliosphere, the bubble of particles surrounding the solar system, is spherical, not comet-shaped. This illustration shows how that bubble is shaped by the interstellar magnetic field and flow of particles from interstellar space. Other labeled parts of the heliosphere are its outer edge (heliopause), the point at which the solar wind slows in speed (termination shock) and the region between those two boundaries (heliosheath).

K. Dialynas et al/Nature Astronomy 2017

The solar system doesn’t have a long, twisted tail after all.

Data from the Cassini and Voyager spacecraft show that the bubble of particles surrounding the solar system is spherical, not comet-shaped. Observing a spherical bubble runs counter to 55 years of speculation on the shape of this solar system feature, says Tom Krimigis of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. He and colleagues report the result online April 24 in Nature Astronomy.

“You can’t really argue with the new result,” says Merav Opher of Boston University, who was not involved in the study. “The data so loudly say that there is no tail.”

The bubble, called the heliosphere, is inflated by particles streaming from the sun and envelops all of the material in the solar system. Its shape is important because it provides clues about how the solar system interacts with interstellar space.

In the 1960s, researchers proposed that the heliosphere was either shaped like a comet or was spherical. Magnetic fields surrounding the sun and the planets look sort of like comets, with long tails extending behind them. So, scientists speculated that the heliosphere would have a tail, too. In 2013, data from the Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, spacecraft found signs that the tail assumption was right. The probe counted the number of fast-moving atoms that are thought to be kicked inward from the edge of the solar system when they collide with charged particles from the sun. Detecting those atoms offers clues to the shape of the heliosphere, and the images suggested that solar system had a long, twisted tail that looked like a four-leaf clover (SN: 8/24/13, p. 9).

But it wasn’t clear from the data exactly how far away from the spacecraft the atoms were and therefore how far the heliosphere’s tail extended, Krimigis says. By combining more than a decade’s worth of data from the Voyager and Cassini probes, he and colleagues sought a clearer picture. The team specifically tracked how the abundance of the speedy atoms changed in different parts of the heliosphere as the intensity of charged particles streaming from the sun, the solar wind, waxed and waned.  

At the front of the heliosphere, where the Voyager probes sit, when the intensity of the solar wind decreased, so did the abundance of speedy atoms. When it increased, the number went up, in lockstep. Looking at speedy atoms at the back of the heliosphere, the team saw the same changes. If there were a long tail, Krimigis says, the changes in the number of atoms wouldn’t be the same in both directions. Because the atoms would have farther to travel in a tail, it would take longer for their abundance to build up there again.

While the observational evidence now favors a spherical shape for the heliosphere, recent simulations suggest something more exotic. The bubble might actually be shaped like a croissant, Opher says. The simulations, which incorporate data from Voyager 1, show that the interaction of the magnetic fields from the sun and interstellar space squish the solar wind into two jets — what might be observed as two short tails. These jets haven’t been detected yet. But if they are, she says, they could give clues to other sets of jets seen in the universe such as those shooting from young stars or possibly even black holes.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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