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NASA probe helps to map solar system

world Updated: Oct 16, 2009 01:03 IST

A NASA probe exploring the outer edges of the solar system has helped scientists create the first map of this little-understood region of space 10 billion miles (16 billion kilometers) from Earth.

Data from the US space agency's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) spacecraft is helping researchers explore the boundary between our Sun and the rest of the galaxy by collecting high-speed atoms.

The IBEX probe is the latest in NASA's series of low-cost, rapidly developed Small Explorers space missions, and was launched just last October but has already has produced stunning results, scientists said.

"The IBEX results are truly remarkable, with emissions not resembling any of the current theories or models of this never-before-seen region," said IBEX principal investigator David McComas.

"We expected to see small, gradual spatial variations at the interstellar boundary, some 10 billion miles away," said McComas, who is also assistant vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

"IBEX is showing us a very narrow ribbon that is two to three times brighter than anything else in the sky."

That bright narrow ribbon that snakes through the sky "remained completely undetected until now," McComas said.

NASA said that a closer look at segments of the ribbon revealed fine structures, which suggests that ion densities may be significantly enhanced in highly localized regions at the interstellar boundary.

Scientists long have been keen to investigate the boundary between the solar system and the rest of our galaxy.

They are particularly eager to learn more about the invisible boundary of our solar system and dust and gas that fills the area between the stars, referred to as interstellar medium.

The interstellar medium is created in part by the interaction between the solar wind -- charged particles continuously traveling at supersonic speeds away from the Sun in all directions.

Scientists said the understanding this outer edge of our solar system will help them understand how the solar wind and interstellar medium inter-relate.

They also hope to gain greater understanding of the heliosphere -- described by NASA as a "giant bubble" providing the first layer of protection against high-energy cosmic rays -- in which the Earth and other planets reside.

IBEX uses two novel cameras to image and map the heliosphere's global interaction, providing detailed information about this interstellar relations. IBEX also is giving scientists greater insight into our cosmos by mapping the flow of interstellar neutral gas which blows through our solar system.

Scientists said more time is needed to fully understand the IBEX data.

The two Voyager spacecraft -- the robotic space probes sent to the outer solar system and beyond, in the past have provided data about more localized parts of the interstellar boundary region, but NASA officials said IBEX is helping fill in the "big picture" of what the space boundary looks like.

NASA was to hold a press conference in Washington Thursday to discuss their findings.