NASA’s Voyager probes are truly going where no one has gone before. Gliding silently toward the stars, 9 billion miles from Earth, they are beaming back news from the most distant, unexplored reaches of the solar system.
Mission scientists say the probes have just sent back some very big news indeed.
It’s bubbly out there.
According to computer models, the bubbles are large, about 100 million miles wide, so it would take the speedy probes weeks to cross just one of them. Voyager 1 entered the “foam-zone” around 2007, and Voyager 2 followed about a year later. At first researchers didn’t understand what the Voyagers were sensing–but now they have a good idea.
“The sun’s magnetic field extends all the way to the edge of the solar system,” explains Opher. “Because the sun spins, its magnetic field becomes twisted and wrinkled, a bit like a ballerina’s skirt. Far, far away from the sun, where the Voyagers are now, the folds of the skirt bunch up.”
When a magnetic field gets severely folded like this, interesting things can happen. Lines of magnetic force criss-cross, and “reconnect”. (Magnetic reconnection is the same energetic process underlying solar flares.) The crowded folds of the skirt reorganize themselves, sometimes explosively, into foamy magnetic bubbles.
“We never expected to find such a foam at the edge of the solar system, but there it is!” says Opher’s colleague, University of Maryland physicist Jim Drake.