Changing Planet

Scientists Begin to Unravel Gigantic Space Ribbon



This 3-D diagram shows the ribbon (grey) wrapping around our bubble-like heliosphere like a belt. Grey lines show the interstellar magnetic field lines astronomers believe creates this mysterious ribbon. Credit: Adler Planetarium/IBEX Team

In 2009 astronomers using NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) spacecraft accidentally came across a giant ribbon-like formation snaking its way across the boundary between our solar system and interstellar space. Ever since, its true nature has remained a riddle astronomers have been unable to solve. But now, they believe they are a step closer to explaining this bizarre structure.

The solar system—the sun and all its planets—is surrounded by a protective magnetic bubble-like boundary called the heliosphere, which acts as a frontline against incoming cosmic rays and interstellar clouds. The science team had been using IBEX to construct the first-ever all-sky map of the interactions occurring at the edge of the solar system when they came across this puzzling ribbon that appears across much of the heliosphere.

While the ribbon doesn’t give off any light, for some unknown reason it emits copious amounts of particles, called energetic neutral atoms, towards the Sun—much more than the surrounding areas do. IBEX can pick up these emissions billions of miles away from Earth orbit, and use them to map the ribbon’s structure.

More than a dozen theories have been put forth to try and explain why mathematical models of the ribbon structure just didn’t quite match what astronomers were seeing (ie. ribbon is actually thicker than it should be according to theory). But now the IBEX science team thinks they have come up with an explanation that begins to explain their observations.

The new theory suggests that this ribbon sits in a particular location at the heliosphere where the solar wind from the Sun crosses the galactic magnetic field. The outward-bound neutral hydrogen atoms that make up this solar wind bounce off the boundary and form gyrating charged ions that create waves in the magnetic field.

The resulting particles stream back inward and form the ribbon of energized neutral atoms.

“This is a perfect example of the scientific process,” said David McComas, co-author on the study and the team leader for the IBEX mission, in a statement.

“We observe something completely new and unexpected with IBEX, develop various hypotheses to explain the observations, and then develop mathematical models to try to validate the hypotheses.”

While scientists believe they have finally begun to answer questions surrounding the astrophysical nature of this gigantic ribbon of energy—its origins still largely remain a mystery. Stay tuned…

This new ‘retention theory’ was published online this week in the Astrophysical Journal.

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.
  • Kim fujioka

    Wow! How interesting! How would this effect global warming?

  • Baxton larson

    I agree with kim

  • Baxton larson


  • Marie McLean

    Saw that in the Star Trek Generations movie!

  • HVG

    “frontline against incoming cosmic rays and interstellar clouds” !!!!!

    WHAT? That is stupid and unscientific language! You also use the word “protective” at one point. Don’t you see that is an absurd anthropomorphic idea that there is a force or agency or something preserving some kind of state? How dumb! Ascribing intention to these phenomena!

  • Donna Smith

    Is this ribbon something that has been created by Global Warming and our abuse of the Earth? Or has the ribbon always been around us and we are just now able to detect it with the use of sattelites and our space missions? It would have been nice if more information had been given on the subject of creation vs. recognition.

  • Mahesh

    Very interesting article

  • John Smith

    For those commenting on this and asking about global warming,the picture is not of the earth but the heliosphere.This ribbon is not wrapped around our planet but around the entire solar system.We would be a speck in that bubble,and have little to no influence on it…the edge of the heliosphere is the heliopause and is 8-14 billion miles away.About 100 times further than the sun.Thats where this ribbon exists,and actually,outside of that area.

  • Jon

    Don’t agree HVG. Do you not see the similarities between a planetary magnetic field and a solar one? The earth’s magnetic field protects the earth. This is based on observation and empirical evidence and has nothing to do with declaring that a GOD type force is doing/sustaining it. Also, cosmic rays and interstellar clouds are actually used terms that one can find on Wikipedia.

  • Dmitry Betenkov

    Don’t believe it. It’s a nice hypothesis… once more.

  • Fernando Cruz

    Is it possible that this Gift God granted our Planet to preserve Human life will forever be beyond Human UnderStanding?

    There is Nothing We, as Humans, Can ever do that will undo
    Gods will. Just accept this and relax.

  • Taylor Friedman

    A Ginat “Wrapped” present!

  • Chyenne

    God made this happen, mabey because the gases, as all poisonus gases, that are in outerspace, will harm planet earth His most precious creation. Don’t you think so????

  • Adithya Bharath

    I think that this is really awesome!…….and…..aa…..really interesting topic on astrophysics ever since now. its really interesting and its one among GOD’s fantastic creations.I wish that there be more extraordinary things to be found further .

  • Cheena Jane Bejasa

    I to go in the solar system

  • diana yang

    i think that nature has remained a riddle astronomers have been unable to solve. we should just accept this and relax.

  • The Dude

    This phenomenon has absolutely NOTHING to do with global warming or really, with Planet Earth. It is past Pluto. It’s 15 billion kilometers away. It’s the space in between our Solar System and interstellar space, the “border” of our solar system. It’s where Voyager currently is. What would make anyone think that there is any correlation between global warming and something that is 15 billion kilometers away?

  • RItesh

    sages in higher meditation can tell every thing about it….. and its written in vedas as well…..)

  • Jake T.

    – While all this is quite remarkable, it raises an important question for interstellar, in fact intergalactic ( we will one day reach this no doubt, humans become bored with the known ) travels and expedition. Will this ‘force field’ per say deflect our own ships or satellites one day, due to its vast size and strentgh? will we be able to re-enter our solar system? if magical space clouds and magical space rays are “easily” deflected with little to no effort, what is to say it does not as well act as a giant force field protecting its cluster of space dibris, in fact this would answer the question of origen of the kaipur belt, and the reason that the gas giants exist, we may be trapped in. Who know? more data needed

  • teboho matladi

    well….God is protecting us against whatever…oooppss…. just being missed by an asteroid.. so much for protection

  • Akbar Muhammad El-Bey

    Not once do they mention Photon Belt or Manaisic Ring.They are withholding information. And yes it does have an effect on earth.The earth first entered the Photon Belt in 1961.

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