We all live in a bubble in space. If that’s news to you it shouldn’t be. A few years ago I wrote about the incredible discovery by a Boston University–led team of astronomers that the helio-sphere—the vast region around the Sun extending more than twice as far as Pluto—should really now be called the helio-crescent. Why? Because it’s shaped like a croissant!
Now NASA has just announced a new five-year grant to allow the scientists to advanced their breakthrough work and investigate how the sun influences and shapes the solar system. The space agency’s $12 million investment will be spread across nine new heliospheric research centers at universities across the U.S.
The heliosphere as a croissant is an incredible concept, but it’s gaining traction. Imagine a comet whizzing through space, its tail trailing behind it. That’s what astronomers thought our solar system was like, its heliosphere extending behind it as it orbits the center of the our Milky Way galaxy.
A stretched bubble? Maybe. How big? That’s not clear. The study of the heliosphere is cutting-edge science because not much is known about it. Here’s what astronomers do know:
- Inside the heliosphere there is a constant storm of heated and charged particles that come from the Sun.
- The heliosphere bubble shelters life on Earth from destructive cosmic rays the come from supernovas.
- It’s the region of space that the Sun commands; its sphere of influence and the extent of the solar wind—charged particles spewed-out by the Sun–that extends far past 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 get into the solar system … and destroy DNA. Or mutate it, which could have created us.
Researchers studying exoplanets are keen to compare the Sun’s heliosphere with those around other stars.
Known as the SHIELD model, the Solar wind with Hydrogen Ion Exchange and Large-scale Dynamics that posits the croissant theory was developed by 40 astrophysics led by Merav Opher, the SHIELD DRIVE Science Center’s principal investigator and a Boston University College of Arts & Sciences professor of astronomy.
“More and more we’re understanding the importance of the heliosphere for life on Earth, for how the climate was on Earth, as well,” said Opher. “But right now, what we understand from the heliosphere, there is a source of energy that is missing—and we don’t know what it is. It means that something inside the heliosphere is producing energy.”
The new NASA-funded research will help the SHIELD team create a “digital twin” of the heliosphere to:
- Allow for better future exploration of the solar system.
- Tell us more about how the changing gas cloud our solar system is moving through affect life on Earth.
- Aid the effort to find other life in our Milky Way galaxy.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.