We all live in a bubble in space. If this is news to you, it shouldn’t be. A few years ago, I wrote about the incredible discovery by a team of astronomers led by Boston University that the helio-ball– the vast region around the Sun that extends more than twice as far as Pluto – should now be called the helio-growing. Why? Because it’s shaped like a croissant!
Now, NASA has just announced a new five-year grant to allow scientists to advance their groundbreaking work and investigate how the sun influences and shapes the solar system. The space agency’s $12 million investment will be distributed across nine new heliospheric research centers at U.S. universities.
The heliosphere as a croissant is an amazing concept, but it’s gaining traction. Imagine a comet zooming through space, with its tail behind it. This is what astronomers thought our solar system looked like, its heliosphere extending behind it as it orbits the center of our Milky Way galaxy.
A stretched bubble? It might be. How big? This is not clear. The study of the heliosphere is cutting edge science because not much is known about it. Here’s what astronomers know:
- Inside the heliosphere is a constant storm of heated, charged particles coming from the Sun.
- The heliosphere bubble protects life on Earth from destructive cosmic rays from supernovae.
- It is the region of space that the Sun commands; its sphere of influence and the extent of the solar wind – charged particles expelled by the Sun – which extends far beyond the orbits of the planets.
- At the edges of the heliosphere is where the solar wind meets the interstellar wind.
- It casts a magnetic force field around all the planets, deflecting charged particles that would otherwise enter the solar system… and destroy DNA. Or transform it, which could have created us.
Researchers who study exoplanets want to compare the Sun’s heliosphere with those of other stars.
Known as the SHIELD model, the solar wind with hydrogen ion exchange and large-scale dynamics that postulates the croissant theory was developed by 40 astrophysicists led by Merav Opher, principal investigator at the SHIELD DRIVE Science Center and a professor at the Boston University College of Astronomy Arts & Sciences.
“We are increasingly understanding the importance of the heliosphere to life on Earth, as was the climate on Earth,” said Opher. “But now, what we understand from the heliosphere, there is an energy source that is missing – and we don’t know what it is. It means that something inside the heliosphere is producing energy.”
New NASA-funded research will help the SHIELD team create a “digital twin” of the heliosphere to:
- Allow better future exploration of the solar system.
- Tell us more about how the shifting gas cloud our solar system is moving through affects life on Earth.
- Help the effort to find another life in our Milky Way galaxy.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.