Astrophysicists Reveal a New Model of Our Solar System’s Protective Bubble, the Heliosphere

Heliosphere Magnetic Force Field

Is this what the heliosphere looks like? New research suggests so. The size and shape of the magnetic “force field” that protects our solar system from deadly cosmic rays has long been debated by astrophysicists. Credit: Image courtesy of Opher, et. al

Boston University astrophysicist and collaborators reveal a new model of our heliosphere that’s shaped somewhere between a croissant and a beach ball.

The heliosphere is a vast region, extending more than twice as far as Pluto. It casts a magnetic “force field” around all the planets, deflecting charged particles that would otherwise muscle into the solar system and even tear through DNA. However, the heliosphere, despite its name, is not actually a sphere. Space physicists have long compared its shape to a comet, with a round “nose” on one side and a long tail extending in the opposite direction.

In 2015, using a new computer model and data from the Voyager 1 spacecraft, Merav Opher, professor of astronomy and researcher at Boston University’s Center for Space Physics, and her coauthor James Drake of the University of Maryland came to a different conclusion: they proposed that the heliosphere is actually shaped like a crescent–not unlike a freshly baked croissant, in fact. In this “croissant” model, two jets extend downstream from the nose rather than a single fade-away tail. “That started the conversation about the global structure of the heliosphere,” says Opher.

Then, two years after the “croissant” debate began, readings from the Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn from 2004 until 2017, suggested yet another vision of the heliosphere. By timing particles echoing off the boundary of the heliosphere and correlating them with ions measured by the twin Voyager spacecraft, Cassini scientists concluded that the heliosphere is actually very nearly round and symmetrical: neither a comet nor a croissant, but more like a beach ball. Their result was just as controversial as the croissant. “You don’t accept that kind of change easily,” says Tom Krimigis, who led experiments on both Cassini and Voyager. “The whole scientific community that works in this area had assumed for over 55 years that the heliosphere had a comet tail.”

Now, Opher, Drake, and colleagues Avi Loeb of Harvard University and Gabor Toth of the University of Michigan have devised a new three-dimensional model of the heliosphere that could reconcile the “croissant” with the beach ball. Their work was published in Nature Astronomy.

Unlike most previous models, which assumed that charged particles within the solar system all hover around the same average temperature, the new model breaks the particles down into two groups. First are charged particles coming directly from the solar wind. Second are what space physicists call “pickup” ions. These are particles that drifted into the solar system in an electrically neutral form–because they aren’t deflected by magnetic fields, neutral particles can “just walk right in,” says Opher–but then had their electrons knocked off.

The New Horizons spacecraft, which is now exploring space beyond Pluto, has revealed that these particles become hundreds or thousands of times hotter than ordinary solar wind ions as they are carried along by the solar wind and sped up by its electric field. But it was only by modeling the temperature, density and speed of the two groups of particles separately that the researchers discovered their outsized influence on the shape of the heliosphere.

That shape, according to the new model, actually splits the difference between a croissant and a sphere. While the new model looks very different from the classic comet model, the two may actually be more similar than they appear, says Opher, depending on exactly how you define the edge of the heliosphere. Think of transforming a grayscale photo to black and white: The final image depends a lot on exactly which shade of gray you pick as the dividing line between black and white.

So why worry about the shape of the heliosphere, anyway? Researchers studying exoplanets—planets around other stars— are keenly interested in comparing our heliosphere with those around other stars. Could the solar wind and the heliosphere be key ingredients in the recipe for life? “If we want to understand our environment we’d better understand all the way through this heliosphere,” says Loeb, Opher’s collaborator from Harvard.

And then there’s the matter of those DNA-shredding interstellar particles. Researchers are still working on what, exactly, they mean for life on Earth and on other planets. Some think that they actually could have helped drive the genetic mutations that led to life like us, says Loeb. “At the right amount, they introduce changes, mutations that allow an organism to evolve and become more complex,” he says. But the dose makes the poison, as the saying goes. “There is always a delicate balance when dealing with life as we know it. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing,” says Loeb.

When it comes to data, though, there’s rarely too much of a good thing. And while the models seem to be converging, they are still limited by a dearth of data from the solar system’s outer reaches. That is why researchers like Opher are hoping to stir NASA to launch a next-generation interstellar probe that will cut a path through the heliosphere and directly detect pickup ions near the heliosphere’s periphery. So far, only the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts have passed that boundary, and they launched more than 40 years ago, carrying instruments of an older era that were designed to do a different job. Mission advocates based at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory say that a new probe could launch some time in the 2030s and start exploring the edge of the heliosphere 10 or 15 years after that.

“With the Interstellar Probe we hope to solve at least some of the innumerous mysteries that Voyagers started uncovering,” says Opher. And that, she thinks, is worth the wait.

Reference: “A small and round heliosphere suggested by magnetohydrodynamic modelling of pick-up ions” by Merav Opher, Abraham Loeb, James Drake and Gabor Toth, 16 March 2020, Nature Astronomy.
DOI: 10.1038/s41550-020-1036-0

18 Comments on "Astrophysicists Reveal a New Model of Our Solar System’s Protective Bubble, the Heliosphere"


  2. “And then there’s the matter of those DNA-shredding interstellar particles. Researchers are still working on what, exactly, they mean for life on Earth and on other planets. Some think that they actually could have helped drive the genetic mutations that led to life like us, says Loeb.”

    I think this is an admission by “some” that present mutation rates cannot explain how the genetic code changed to the extent it would have to, within the postulated time frame.

    Why not consider the possibility that we were created by God on the 6th day of creation week, roughly 6000 years ago?

    Suppose two chromosomes were fused (or split) in a single individual. That happens sometimes. But it can cause fertility issues. What then are the odds that both a male and a female with the same mutational change in chromosome number would mate? And then what are the odds that that change would become predominant in a population? Over and over and over again? Within the postulated time frame?

    Increased bombardment by interstellar particles does not resolve the problems. It’s high time that this nonsense be abandoned, and that the propaganda cease.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 22, 2020 at 7:48 am | Reply

      You describe it wrong since the topic is physics, not the basis of biology, just so you can evangelize irrelevant religion based on a strawman “gap” to stuff it in.

      And why would anyone consider religion when it comes to facts anyway? For starters, it is obvious now, if not before, that there are no “gods”. The universe is closed both thermodynamically (average flat space means zero energy density means we can check it is natural – it is) and general relativistically (it defines all there is, was and can be – as natural).

      • Your response is incorrect on many counts.

        If you want to talk physics, the decades-old peer-reviewed report on U/Pb ratios in Jurassic and Triassic coalified woods samples might be a start. That report stated that the Triassic ratios resulted in calculated ages that differed from those assumed by evolutionists by a factor of at least 760.

        Another topic might be the Pb and He retention rates in Precambrian zircons that were consistent with an age of thousands of years, not the 1.5 billion-year age evolutionists assume them to be.

        • Torbjörn Larsson | March 25, 2020 at 6:21 am | Reply

          You claim my response is incorrect, but it is on topic and you did not show what would be incorrect.

          Then you try to insert more irrelevancies that are religious superstition memes – still no references, just anecdotal descriptions – and has nothing to do with the shape of the heliosphere. Those memes are wrong by the way, which a simple search would tell anyone: . Or in my case told to exhaustion, since we observed radio nuclei half life in undergraduate education lab work.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 22, 2020 at 7:51 am | Reply

      TL;DR: “It’s high time that this nonsense be abandoned, and that the propaganda cease.”

      Irony. 3,000 + Bronze Age myth and it was without evidence up to the point we could test it. And now it is known to be wrong.

      • Torbjörn Larsson | March 22, 2020 at 7:52 am | Reply

        “3,000 +” = 3,000 + years of

      • No, it is not known to be wrong. And given the recent reports on the discovery of soft tissue, protein, blood vessels, cartilage, and DNA in dinosaur bones, you don’t have a scientific basis for your pontification.

        “And Zillah, she also bare Tubalcain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron” (Genesis 4:22).

        Let’s call it what it is: The term “Bronze Age” is misleading, since it implies that no one was doing anything with bronze before that point in time. And “Iron Age” is supposed to come after the “Bronze Age.” And yet here we have an historical record that says that the very first man’s grandson’s grandson’s grandson’s son was an expert at teaching bronze and iron workers.

        • Torbjörn Larsson | March 25, 2020 at 6:29 am | Reply

          Stop spouting your magic texts in a serious conversation; and such myth is obviously not “historical records” by the way.

          For the rest of not knowing what we know – that this magic do not work, since there are no ‘gods’, and how we know it – your’s is a claim that you do not provide evidence for, see my above comment.

          Creationists can’t evangelize any longer, since they are so obviously wrong. Say, see how the latest generation even in the Arab nations are going secular – in Tunis more than half. Bronze Age myths are dying – and we will be better for it.

          “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

          – Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate

          • “Radiohalos and Coalified Wood: New Evidence Relating to the Time of Uranium Introduction and Coalification.” Science 194, 315.

            That was published in 1976, in Science. That’s 44 years ago.

            If you thought what I was referring to was just anecdotal, you should ask yourself why your atheist and skeptic teachers never told you about that report.

            “Differential Lead Retention in Zircons: Implications for Nuclear Waste Containment.” Science 216, 296.

            “Differential Helium Retention in Zircons: Implications for Nuclear Waste Containment.” Geophysical Research Letters 9, 1129.

            Both of those are from 1982. The implications aren’t fully spelled out in those reports, but the end conclusion is that those zircons are only thousands of years old.

            “You claim my response is incorrect, but it is on topic and you did not show what would be incorrect.”

            I actually did. You said it is obvious that there are no gods. I then gave you just two lines of evidence among many that clearly show that the current atheistic model of origins is flawed and falsified, because it cannot explain the origin of life as we see it today within the time scale mandated by the geologic phenomena I referred to.

  3. Torbjörn Larsson | March 22, 2020 at 7:42 am | Reply

    I only has some remarks on the ties to astrobiology:

    “[The heliosphere ] casts a magnetic “force field” around all the planets, deflecting charged particles that would otherwise muscle into the solar system and even tear through your DNA”.

    This is correct but may be worth adding to.

    Earlier estimates says the heliosphere stops the majority of (perhaps 90 %) of cosmic rays entering the system as it is so vast in extent. But conversely, the much smaller scale individual planetary magnetospheres doesn’t add much protection. It is Earth’s atmosphere that stops most of the remaining 10 %.

    “Some think that they actually could have helped drive the genetic mutations that led to life like us, says Loeb. “At the right amount, they introduce changes, mutations that allow an organism to evolve and become more complex,””.

    Ionizing radiation makes genetic (DNA) and somatic (temporary RNA and protein changes) mutations, but most of genetic mutations are caused by errors in replication. And the chemical machinery in eukaryotes is double checking so that it can minimize the effects.

    Yhat there is a balance in mutation rates is one hypothesis among several. I don’t think there has been much in the way of useful tests on any of them.

  4. Well, Bob, if you’d like to believe in Bronze/Iron Age fairytale and fantasy, that’s your right to do so. But, please, if you think that this sort of nonsense will wash with anyone with even a modicum of common sense and scientific training, then you have something coming for you. Quoting from your book of fantasy means nothing. IT IS NOT a book of history and any of the history that is contained within is only there on the basis that SOME of the text has been written to account for some historical events the Jews lived through. IT IS NOT a text which is 100% factually and historically correct or even relevant. Far from it. For the most part, there is no independent historical evidence, contemporary or otherwise, for 95% of the characters within it, including Jesus, and some of the historical references within it have been written and taken out of context. It is a book in which nothing within it, other than a few references to some actual historical events (e.g. the sacking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar), has ever been verified or has ever been found to hold up to scrutiny when questioned thoroughly. You might believe otherwise, but that only shows that you’d believe in anything, so long as it somehow salves your own worldview. Put to the test, it fails miserably. At least science takes hypotheses and tests them until they can either be falsified or show to hold under scrutiny. At least science does not believe in the first thing it finds but skeptically tests what it finds. Faith require blind belief and obedience in what is to be believed. Science couldn’t give a rat’s about belief or faith because neither are relevant, nor needed, to find out the facts. As for the truth, that depends on your point of view. One man’s truth is another man’s falsehood and you can argue about it till the cows come home. Fact, on the other hand, can be quantified, qualified and verified. Through observation, testing and research. Nothing of which can be said about the bible or any other religious text.

    • Carl,

      Note that you failed to address mutation rates or the odds of differences in chromosome number spreading throughout a population. Neither did you address the U/Pb ratios that show that the ages evolutionists believe Triassic and Jurassic strata to be are incorrect, the Triassic dates being off by at least a factor of 760. Neither did you address the Pb and He retention rates that are consistent with Precambrian zircons being just thousands of years old.

      Instead of dealing with the scientific issues I raised, you attacked the Bible, without citing a single specific detail or story that you think is problematic. You really should have dealt with the science first rather than try to distract from the fact that the geologic evidence affirms the biblical accounts.

      You mention Nebuchadnezzar. He had a dream in Daniel 2 that accurately depicts history since then. What do you say about that? Note particularly vs. 43 which predicts that the divisions of the Roman Empire in western Europe would never reunite. Ever heard of Brexit? And the migrant crisis? And now the coronavirus straining the ties between EU nations? Not to mention Hitler’s failure to reunite Europe, Napoleon’s failure, and a number of others? Just a coincidence?

      And then there’s Daniel 7, which predicted the rise of the papacy, its despotic sway during the Middle Ages, its claim to have changed the 10 Commandments (in vs. 25), and its killing of millions of believers. Just a coincidence?

      Skeptics used to point to two details in Daniel to attack its authenticity. (a) Daniel says that Nebuchadnezzar built Babylon. (b) Daniel says that Belshazzar was the last king. Greek historians writing not long after knew nothing about these two details. But skeptics don’t use these two details to attack Daniel anymore, because archaeology has proven both details true.

      Skeptics typically don’t believe in prophecy, and so they assert that Daniel was written in the 2nd century BC, after the fact, and they leave the breakup of Rome and the rise of the papacy out of the picture. But now think of this: If the two above details weren’t known by Greek historians, then Daniel would have had to have been written before those two details were forgotten. Thus, the silence of the Greek historians supports a 6th century BC date for the book of Daniel, since if it had been written in the 2nd century BC, those two details would not have been included.

      The Bible should be considered for its historical value just as much as any other ancient work is. Otherwise, there is a gross inconsistency.

      But please, deal with the scientific issues I raised before attacking the Bible, even though surely attacking the Bible using generalities is much easier to do.

      • Torbjörn Larsson | March 25, 2020 at 6:52 am | Reply

        “Note that you failed to address mutation rates or the odds of differences in chromosome number spreading throughout a population.”

        Mutation rate and chromosome number evolution is all part of the basic process of biology [ , ]. Don’t they teach searching and reading where you live? 90 % of females have access to education, why wouldn’t you have?

        Finally, while all of this is besides the point of either the heliosphere or the knowledge that religion today is analogous to astrology or homeopathy – it is not even that you can’t show evidence for ‘gods’, we can show evidence they don’t exist, all of which you chose to ignore – you make a mistake.

        In trying to respond to Carl that your myth has factual basis, you refer to the myth* and thus show it has no basis.

        But if you wanted to get somewhere with your inanities, you would *first* have to show us why our evidence that ‘gods’ do not exist is wrong. You can’t.

        *) Also, who claims the myth text was written when? The text fragment Daniel 1 can be dated with the Dead Sea Scrolls to ~ 2.300 years ago [ ]. The latter parts were additions, since the corresponding fragments show that the myth was still syncretic assembled from local semitic and greek religions as a reaction to the 2.400 years ago Hellenistic Conquest.

        This show that they are not historical in any sense. As if myth had a smidgen of likelihood they were, never mind that there are other myths contradicting them (different ‘history’, different ‘gods’). Even the first parts are written generations after the events they describe.

        Oh, they got one or two historical facts correct like the existence of a king Judah (they couldn’t miss that one!). But are mostly either wrong – wrong king orders say, or the archaeological record show it didn’t happen – or unverifiable. Verifiable is what historical records must be.

        • Seems like you too have refused to discuss the science before attacking yet again the Bible. Note that your reference to mutation rate and chromosome number essentially says nothing at all.

          Why are mules infertile? Why don’t bananas have seeds? The correct chromosome number and chromosome compatibility are essential for good fertility. When you have a change in chromosome number, you run the risk of negatively impacting fertility, unless your mate has the same genetic change. This is very basic stuff.

          And thus my question is a valid one, whether the postulated changes can take place through random mutations within the postulated time frame. but it’s not my theory. Those who propose the theory are the ones responsible for demonstrating that it all can happen through blind chance within the postulated time frame.

          I don’t recall you giving any detailed reason or evidence why God does not exist.

          Take a look at Gerhard Hasel’s “The Book of Daniel Confirmed by the Dead Sea Scrolls” in JATS 1/2 (1990):37-49 and tell me what your evidence is that “the latter parts [of Daniel] were additions.” Get specific.

          Your last paragraph comes across as if you didn’t understand at all what I wrote. Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylon, not a king of Judah. It is significant that ch. 4 has him saying that he built Babylon, a detail Greek historians writing not that long after knew nothing about. It took modern archaeology to confirm that detail.

          Same with Dan. 5’s depiction of Belshazzar being the last king. Persian records mention no such king by name. The Greek historians wrote nothing about him. It wasn’t until about 100 years ago or so that archaeology and scholars were able to piece it all together.

          If Daniel didn’t write Daniel in the 6th century BC, those details wouldn’t be in his book. Plain and simple. It’s only your biases that would hinder you from seriously considering this obvious conclusion to be the truth.

      • If there was one single god then there wouldn’t have been hundreds of gods for everything prior to him showing up in early monotheism. Argument is invalid, you’re delusional, and don’t procreate.

        • Seems like you are assuming what must first be proven.

          Since the geologic evidence I have brought up supports the biblical account of creation, and since the living God is the one who created everything in that account, you don’t really have a logical basis for speaking of “gods” prior to Him.

          Secondly, one of the scholarly theories for where all the other gods came from is that they were once living people who were deified after they died. And the Bible affirms that theory when it speaks of the Israelite apostasy at Baal-peor. Numbers 25:2 says, “And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat,” while Psalm 106:28 says, they “ate the sacrifices of the dead.” The gods of the heathen were therefore the dead.

          It only stands to reason that if the other gods were once living people, then the God who created man existed prior to those other gods, not vice versa.

          Just so I’m not misunderstood:

          1 Corinthians 10:20 But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: ….

          The reason this is so is because Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, 10 says that the dead know not anything. They have no consciousness between death and the resurrection. Therefore, whenever the “gods” talked back to their worshipers, they were really demons, fallen angels, in disguise.

          Try again. Deal with either the scientific questions or the archeological evidence I’ve raised. But don’t take the non-intellectual route and pretend that there isn’t potentially irrefutable evidence already on the table against what you just said.

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