The results are in: Science says the Solar System's magnetic heliosphere looks like a deflated croissant

Or maybe a spleen? Stomach? Snot bubble? You decide


Pic Not only does the good ol’ Sun provide us with light and warmth, its solar wind casts around the planetary system a protective magnetic bubble that’s probably shaped like a... deflated croissant.

You’d probably get away with describing it looking like a slightly misshapen spleen or a stomach if you're not into baked goods analogies. Regardless of what you see in the image, scientists have attempted to study this odd structure for years. Initially, they reckoned it resembled a comet: spherical with a trailing tail.

The latest computer model, however, shows the shape is more lumpy and vague. NASA has dubbed it a depressed pastry.

Technically known as the heliosphere, the giant blob is made up of charged particles emitted from the Sun. The nearest edge to Earth is ten billion miles away; its sheer size and the fact we live inside it makes it difficult to observe. Its job is to mostly shield our system from galactic cosmic rays, which can damage electronics and living cells. Earth is thankfully further protected by its own magnetic field and atmosphere; craft out in the obsidian void has to fend for itself.

The Solar System's heliosphere

A computer-generated model of the Solar System's protective heliosphere pouch ... Credit: Opher, et al. Click to enlarge

The only probes that have ventured to the heliosphere's edge are NASA's Voyager 1 and 2, which have provided some information on the bottle.

Now, astronomers have refined the model of the blob by piecing together various bits of solar wind data collected from NASA’s Cassini and New Horizons probes. The US agency said Cassini carried equipment that observed particles bouncing back into the Solar System, which helped define the heliosphere’s boundary. Meanwhile, New Horizons measured so-called pick-up ions that are picked up from space and carried along by the Sun's solar winds. These pick-up ions are much hotter than the particles streaming out from the Sun.

Voyager probe illustration

Official: Voyager 2 is now an interstellar spacecraft

READ MORE

Merav Opher – lead author of a paper detailing the croissant-like model, published in Nature Astronomy, and an astronomy professor at America's Boston University – said these hot pick-up ions and not-so-hot solar-stream particles mix, and this combination reveals the true outer shape, hopefully, of the heliosphere.

“There are two fluids mixed together. You have one component that is very cold and one component that is much hotter, the pick-up ions,” she said. “If you have some cold fluid and hot fluid, and you put them in space, they won’t mix – they will evolve mostly separately. What we did was separate these two components of the solar wind and model the resulting 3D shape of the heliosphere.”

Plotting the deflated croissant shape is important for future space missions as it shows where spacecraft is protected, and where it isn't.

Scientists will also be able to map its shape in more detail thanks to an upcoming mission. NASA is expected to launch the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe in 2024 that will carry various instruments to detect charged particles, pick-up ions, and more to better understand how the solar wind interacts with the interstellar medium in the Milky Way. ®

Broader topics

Narrower topics


Other stories you might like

  • Robotics and 5G to spur growth of SoC industry – report
    Big OEMs hogging production and COVID causing supply issues

    The system-on-chip (SoC) side of the semiconductor industry is poised for growth between now and 2026, when it's predicted to be worth $6.85 billion, according to an analyst's report. 

    Chances are good that there's an SoC-powered device within arm's reach of you: the tiny integrated circuits contain everything needed for a basic computer, leading to their proliferation in mobile, IoT and smart devices. 

    The report predicting the growth comes from advisory biz Technavio, which looked at a long list of companies in the SoC market. Vendors it analyzed include Apple, Broadcom, Intel, Nvidia, TSMC, Toshiba, and more. The company predicts that much of the growth between now and 2026 will stem primarily from robotics and 5G. 

    Continue reading
  • Deepfake attacks can easily trick live facial recognition systems online
    Plus: Next PyTorch release will support Apple GPUs so devs can train neural networks on their own laptops

    In brief Miscreants can easily steal someone else's identity by tricking live facial recognition software using deepfakes, according to a new report.

    Sensity AI, a startup focused on tackling identity fraud, carried out a series of pretend attacks. Engineers scanned the image of someone from an ID card, and mapped their likeness onto another person's face. Sensity then tested whether they could breach live facial recognition systems by tricking them into believing the pretend attacker is a real user.

    So-called "liveness tests" try to authenticate identities in real-time, relying on images or video streams from cameras like face recognition used to unlock mobile phones, for example. Nine out of ten vendors failed Sensity's live deepfake attacks.

    Continue reading
  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022