Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Matter from beyond the solar system...

For the first time ever, matter from beyond our solar system has been conclusively detected.

A NASA probe known as IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) found the particles of hydrogen, neon, oxygen, and helium at the very edge of our solar system.  Well out in space past the orbit of the former planet Pluto.  One interesting point discovered, there are 74 oxygen atoms for every 20 neon atoms in the interstellar void.  By way of comparison, there are 111 oxygen atoms for every 20 neon atoms within our solar system.

"These are important elements to know quantitatively because they are the building blocks of stars, planets, people," David McComas, IBEX principal investigator, said.  "We discovered this puzzle: matter outside our solar system doesn't look like material inside our solar system. It seems to be deficient in oxygen compared to neon."

That quote comes directly from the linked article.  Just so everyone knows I'm not cribbing.

The IBEX craft also detected that interstellar wind is also traveling at a different speed and in a different direction than previously suspected.  This is all in addition to a 2009 discovery by IBEX of a mysterious "ribbon" of charged particles, moving at millions of miles per hour away from the Sun and out into interstellar space.

I shall now address the omnipresent "so what?" factor.  Why should we care about any of this?
First of all, findings of this kind give astronomers and other scientists a clearer overall picture of the formation of matter in the universe.  For example, what is the significance of the greater oxygen density in our solar system?  Is this a unique feature of our tiny corner of the cosmos?  What greater role does neon play?  More data on these various facets will go a long way towards solidifying the theory of the "big bang"...or perhaps disproving it altogether.  If that doesn't float your boat, try contemplating the sheer "wow" aspect of finally finding (proven) material that originated elsewhere in the galaxy.  Though it is mere particulate matter, it is by very definition, "alien."  Through discoveries such as these, we may finally form concrete understandings of star systems beyond our own.  I'm also rather curious.  Exactly how fast were these particles moving as they seem to have been traveling against the solar wind?  What kicked them into such motion?  Are they supernova remnants?  I find this kind of thing fascinating but then I'm not exactly tuning in to the Kardashians or Jersey Shore every night, so what do I know?

If space is your kinda thing and you're still reading, check out these amazing images of auroral activity brought on by last month's massive solar flare.

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