News / Science & Technology

Scientists Observe Solar System's Tail for First Time

Other stars show tails that trail behind them like a comet's tail. NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer helped confirm that our solar system has one too. From top left and going counter clockwise, the stars shown are: LLOrionis; BZ Cam; and Mira (NASA/HST/R.Casalegno/GALEX)
Other stars show tails that trail behind them like a comet's tail. NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer helped confirm that our solar system has one too. From top left and going counter clockwise, the stars shown are: LLOrionis; BZ Cam; and Mira (NASA/HST/R.Casalegno/GALEX)
Suzanne Presto
If you've ever seen a speeding comet or even an image of one, you've seen that it has a tail.  Scientists have thought that our solar system also has a tail, but they just observed it for the first time.  

Interstellar Boundary Explorer

NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, is a satellite that peers out toward the edge of our solar system.  It allowed scientists to actually map out the tail of our heliosphere, that region of space that is influenced by the Sun.

Eric Christian, an IBEX mission scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said scientists have seen tails around other stars.

"We know that the Sun is moving relative to interstellar gas, and so we presumed there was a tail, but this is actually the first real data that we have that gives us the shape of the tail," he said in a NASA-organized Google Plus Hangout Wednesday.

Clover Shaped

Scientists say the tail resembles a four-leaf clover, shaped by solar wind, the material that speeds away from the sun. Solar wind travels faster when it comes from the sun's poles, and slower when it comes from the equator, and scientists attribute the tail's shape to the combination of slow and fast moving particles.        
Tail's Length

David McComas, an assistant vice president for space science and engineering at the Southwest Research Institute in Texas, is the IBEX principal investigator.

"The length of the tail is one of the things we don't measure particularly well," he said, noting that the measurements are taken from inside the heliosphere looking out.

But McComas says scientists can make calculations based on the particles they observe, and they think the heliotail trails off and evaporates over a distance of possibly 160 billion kilometers.

The findings about the solar system's tail were published in the July 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.  

Interstellar Explorer

NASA's IBEX spacecraft was launched in 2008, and the small satellite is roughly the size of a bus tire.  It has instruments similar to telescopes that are pointed toward the edge of our solar system.  These instruments collect particles that travel toward our planet from out beyond Pluto.  

Scientists analyze details about the particles' mass and energy, as well as the area they came from and the time they were collected, and they use these details to map the boundary of our solar system.

You May Like

Turkey's Controversial Reform Bill Giving Investors Jitters

Homeland security reform bill will give police new powers in search, seizure, detention and arrests, while restricting the rights of suspects, their attorneys More

Audio Slideshow In Kenyan Prison, Good Grades Are Path to Freedom

Some inmates who get high marks could see their sentences commuted to non-custodial status More

Ali Regained Title in Historic Fight 40 Years Ago

'The Champ' knocked Foreman out to regain crown he had lost 7 years earlier when US government accused him of draft-dodging and boxing officials revoked his license More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Victorious Secularists Face Challenge to Form Government in Tunisiai
X
Henry Ridgwell
October 30, 2014 11:39 PM
Official results from Tunisia show the Islamist Ennahda party has failed to win the second free election since the so-called "Arab Spring" uprising in 2011. Ennahda, which handed power to a government of technocrats pending the elections, lost out to the secular party Nidaa Tounes. Henry Ridgwell reports from London that the relatively peaceful poll offers some hope in a volatile region.
Video

Video Victorious Secularists Face Challenge to Form Government in Tunisia

Official results from Tunisia show the Islamist Ennahda party has failed to win the second free election since the so-called "Arab Spring" uprising in 2011. Ennahda, which handed power to a government of technocrats pending the elections, lost out to the secular party Nidaa Tounes. Henry Ridgwell reports from London that the relatively peaceful poll offers some hope in a volatile region.
Video

Video Africa Tells its Story Through Fashion

In Africa, Fashion Week is a riot of colors, shapes, patterns and fabrics - against the backdrop of its ongoing struggle between nature and its fast-growing urban edge. How do these ideas translate into needle and thread? VOA’s Anita Powell visited this year’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Africa in Johannesburg to find out.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.

All About America

AppleAndroid