Astronomers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States have developed the first 3D map of the heliosphere. The heliosphere is a protective bubble created by the solar wind – a constant stream of magnetic field and particles released by the sun – around our solar system that protects us from harmful interstellar radiation. Scientists created the 3D map using data from NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer, an earth-orbiting satellite that keeps an eye on the interactions happening between our solar system and interstellar space. According to the scientists, physics models had theorised the boundaries of the heliosphere for years, “but this is the first time we’ve actually been able to measure it and make a three-dimensional map of it,” said Dan Reisenfeld, the lead author of the research, in a news release by Alamos National Laboratory. The lab is governed by the US Department of Energy. The study was published in The Astrophysical Journal on June 10.
To map the boundaries of our solar system and the heliosheath – the area where the solar wind slows down and becomes turbulent because of the interstellar space radiation, scientists studied data from the Interstellar Boundary Explorer((IBEX) satellite which monitors the particles coming from the heliosheath. Using the data, astronomers were able to map the edge of our heliosphere – the heliopause. The heliopause is the area where a fierce interaction between interstellar space radiation and the solar wind happens. The solar winds, colliding with interstellar space radiation pushes outwards while interstellar space radiation pushes the solar wind inwards.
Scientists performed the measurement using a technique similar to bat sonar. “Just as bats send out sonar pulses in every direction and use the return signal to create a mental map of their surroundings, we used the Sun’s solar wind, which goes out in all directions, to create a map of the heliosphere,” said Reisenfeld.
Scientists used data collected over a period of 11 years, from 2009 through 2019.