Alien particles, that is.
Using data from NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) spacecraft, an international team of researchers has measured neutral “alien” particles entering our solar system from interstellar space. A suite of studies published in the Astrophysical Journal provides a first look at the constituents of the interstellar medium, the matter between star systems, and how they interact with our heliosphere.
The only other spacecraft to directly detect these inflowing neutral particles was Ulysses, which more than a decade ago measured interstellar neutral helium. Although IBEX is designed primarily to map the interactions between the solar wind and ionized interstellar material, its low-energy energetic neutral atom camera has now also measured interstellar neutral particles not detected by Ulysses. From its location within Earth’s orbit, IBEX has sampled interstellar hydrogen, oxygen, and neon in addition to neutral helium.
Neon and oxygen reside throughout the galaxy, but researchers are unsure of their distribution. Using IBEX data, the first direct measurements of these elements in the local interstellar medium, researchers can determine how much oxygen is in the local part of the galaxy, which materials are present in what amounts and more.
“Answering these questions is important for understanding the variability of the galactic soup — the material from which stars, planets and life all form,” says Dr. David J. McComas, IBEX principal investigator and an assistant vice president at Southwest Research Institute.
Yeah, I’m a geek.