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.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
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.