A great magnetic bubble surrounds the solar system as it cruises through the galaxy. The sun pumps the inside of the bubble full of solar particles that stream out to the edge until they collide with the material that fills the rest of the galaxy, at a complex boundary called the heliosheath. On the other side of the boundary, electrically charged particles from the galactic wind blow by, but rebound off the heliosheath, never to enter the solar system. Neutral particles, on the other hand, are a different story. They saunter across the boundary as if it weren’t there, continuing on another 7.5 billion miles for 30 years until they get caught by the sun’s gravity, and sling shot around the star.
There, NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer lies in wait for them. Known as IBEX for short, this spacecraft methodically measures these samples of the mysterious neighborhood beyond our home. IBEX scans the entire sky once a year, and every February, its instruments point in the correct direction to intercept incoming neutral atoms. IBEX counted those atoms in 2009 and 2010 and has now captured the best and most complete glimpse of the material that lies so far outside our own system.
The results? It’s an alien environment out there: the material in that galactic wind doesn’t look like the same stuff our solar system is made of.
“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. “IBEX’s observations shed a whole new light on the mysterious zone where the solar system ends and interstellar space begins.”