The U.S. space agency, NASA, says its Interstellar Boundary Explorer [IBEX] mission is showing scientists that the galactic environment is much different than the one inside the solar system.
The one-meter wide IBEX probe was launched into high Earth orbit in 2008. Its mission is to make discoveries about the interactions between the [heliosphere] boundary that protects our solar system, and the [interstellar] material contained in the galactic wind.
NASA says the chemical mismatch indicated in the IBEX data could mean the solar system evolved in a separate part of our Milky Way galaxy than its current position. The solar system is constantly moving through space, and completes one orbit around the center of the galaxy once every 225 million years.
NASA says IBEX observations are providing new clues about how and where the solar system formed some 5 billion years ago; and how the heliosphere changes size and shape as it travels through the galaxy.
Scientists say expanding our understanding of how the heliosphere protects the solar system is critical to planning future human space travel beyond the Earth.
Six separate reports on the IBEX observations are published in the Astrophysics Journal.
The IBEX spacecraft has been collecting and measuring interstellar particles since 2009. The tiny eight-sided probe is only about the size of a bus tire. It orbits the Earth every eight days from an altitude of about 325,000 kilometers, or 5/6 the distance to the Moon. That may seem like a lot for an orbiting satellite, but the distance pales in comparison to the 14 billion kilometers between IBEX and the heliosphere boundary the probe observes.