LOS ANGELES (The Blaze/AP) — A glimpse beyond our solar system reveals the neighborhood just outside the sun’s influence is different and stranger than expected.
NASA scientists announced Tuesday that the first evidence of “alien matter” — elements from outside of our solar system — was measured by the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), according to Space.com:
“This alien interstellar material is really the stuff that stars and planets and people are made of — it’s really important to be measuring it,” David McComas, IBEX principal investigator and assistant vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said in a news briefing [...] from NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Watch this clip about the discovery:
One oddity scientists saw was in the amount of oxygen. There are more oxygen atoms floating freely in the solar system than in the immediate interstellar space, or the vast region between stars.
Scientists were unsure why, but they said it’s possible some of the life-supporting element could be hidden in dust or ice.
“We discovered this big puzzle — that the matter just outside of our solar system doesn’t look like the material inside,” said David McComas of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.
IBEX was launched in 2008 to study the chaotic boundary where the solar wind from the sun clashes with cold gases from interstellar space.
Circling 200,000 miles above Earth, the IBEX spacecraft spots particles streaming into the solar system. A protective bubble surrounding around the sun and planets prevents dangerous cosmic radiation from seeping through, but neutral particles can pass freely, allowing IBEX to map their distribution.
The presence of less oxygen outside the solar system should not have any bearing on the search for Earth-like planets, scientists involved in the exoplanet hunt said.
There’s plenty of oxygen in all the stars in the galaxy and in the material out of which stars and planets form, Geoff Marcy of University of California, Berkeley said in an email.
The Daily Mail reports that the scientists observed 74 oxygen atoms for every 20 neon atoms, whereas in our solar system there are 111 oxygen atoms for every 20 neon atoms. The Daily Mail has more on how scientists hope to use this data and more collected from IBEX:
With the new research scientists may now be able to map how our galaxy evolved and changed over time.
“In the beginning there was only hydrogen and helium,” Eberhard Moebius, a University of New Hampshire professor and IBEX team member at Los Alamos, said.
“These two elements formed the first stars. When those stars collapsed and died, they spewed their material, including new elements created through the process of nuclear fusion, out into space.
“We can tell a lot about the evolution of our universe and perhaps gain insight into other galaxies and planetary systems by analysing these particles.”
While IBEX probes the edge of the solar system from Earth orbit, NASA’s long-running, nuclear-powered twin Voyager spacecraft are at the fringes. Launched in 1977, the spacecraft have been exploring the solar system boundary since 2004.
Scientists have said it’ll be months or years before Voyager 1 exits the solar system and becomes the first manmade probe to cross into interstellar space.