Article image

How space probes could safely leave the comfort of our heliosphere

The vast expanse of space surrounding our solar system is far from empty. It’s a dynamic region where the Sun’s influence creates a giant, protective bubble known as the heliosphere.

This bubble is permeated by a steady stream of charged particles emitted by the Sun, known as the solar wind. It also encompasses the Sun’s vast magnetic field, extending as the interplanetary magnetic field.

Together, they form a protective shield around our solar system, guarding it against the intense radiation that fills our galaxy. Yet, the precise size, shape, and boundaries of this crucial shield remain shrouded in mystery.

Understanding cosmic environment through heliosphere

To grasp the environment within our solar system and our place within the Milky Way galaxy, we must decode heliosphere. Scientists have developed various models to describe its possible shape.

Some envision it as a sphere, others as a stretched teardrop, while some suggest a more complex crescent form. However, without venturing beyond its boundaries, a definitive answer remains elusive.

An interstellar probe, a spacecraft specifically designed for an unprecedented journey, would offer the unique opportunity to observe the heliosphere from the outside in.

This external perspective would unlock the secrets of its true shape and properties, transforming our understanding of our cosmic neighborhood.

Charting the ideal trajectory

An analysis conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan aims to guide the optimal flight path for such a mission. Sarah A. Spitzer, a researcher at U-M, emphasizes the critical need for this perspective.

“Without such a mission, we lack the perspective necessary to fully comprehend the heliosphere and its boundaries,” Spitzer explained.

Understanding the heliosphere’s true form is essential for protecting future space travelers and life on Earth from harmful radiation.

As Marc Kornbleuth, a scientist from Boston University, notes: “We want to know how the heliosphere protects astronauts and life in general from harmful galactic radiation, but that is difficult to do when we still don’t even know the shape of our shield.”

While many mission concepts focus on a path aimed towards the “nose” of the heliosphere (the region where it meets interstellar space head-on), the University of Michigan study suggests a potentially more insightful trajectory.

The research suggests aiming the interstellar probe towards the side and specifically the tail region of the heliosphere.

The tail of the heliosphere

The tail end of the heliosphere is a particularly intriguing region. Theoretical models suggest that this is where material from interstellar space can directly interact with the heliosphere.

This zone of dynamic interaction could enable an interstellar probe to collect samples of the interstellar medium in its untouched state. This offers a rare opportunity to peek into the space that lies beyond our solar system.

To maximize the scientific return of this ambitious mission, the study outlines specific measurements an interstellar probe should prioritize.

These include detailed mapping of the solar wind, its magnetic fields, and the distribution of various particles and elements.

These observations would be key to building more accurate models of the heliosphere.

From voyager to a new generation

Launched in 1977, the Voyager missions offered crucial initial discoveries about the heliosphere. However, their age and the technology onboard limit what they can achieve today.

In contrast, a specialized interstellar probe would be tailor-made for such explorations. It would be equipped to venture farther, gather more comprehensive data, and function over a significantly extended period.

“This analysis took a lot of persistence. It started small and grew into a great resource for the community,” highlights Susan Lepri, a professor at U-M, who participated in the study.

A journey of persistence and collaboration

This research, described as a product of persistence of researchers at U-M, underscores the collaborative effort of over 1,000 scientists.

The mission concept discussed envisages a 50-year journey intended to travel around 400 astronomical units, potentially extending to 1,000 astronomical units.

This venture promises an unprecedented glimpse of our heliosphere and the interstellar medium beyond, marking a monumental stride in our cosmic exploration.

More about the heliosphere

The sun, our life-giving star, constantly emits a stream of charged particles known as the solar wind. As the solar wind rushes outward from the sun, it creates a bubble-like region in space called the heliosphere.

As discussed previously in this article, this cosmic shield protects Earth and other planets in our solar system from the harmful effects of galactic cosmic rays.

Solar wind shapes the heliosphere

The solar wind, composed primarily of protons and electrons, travels at speeds ranging from 300 to 800 kilometers per second.

As it expands into space, the solar wind pushes against the interstellar medium, the gas and dust that exist between stars. This interaction shapes the heliosphere, creating a boundary known as the heliopause.

Heliosphere’s structure

The heliosphere consists of several distinct regions:

The termination shock: This is the point where the solar wind slows down to subsonic speeds as it encounters the interstellar medium.

The heliosheath: This region lies between the termination shock and the heliopause, where the solar wind becomes turbulent and compressed.

The heliopause: The outer boundary of the heliosphere, where the solar wind’s pressure balances with that of the interstellar medium.

Protecting Earth from cosmic rays

One of the heliosphere’s crucial roles is to shield Earth from galactic cosmic rays. These high-energy particles originate from distant supernovae and other energetic events in the universe.

The heliosphere deflects and attenuates these cosmic rays, reducing their impact on Earth’s atmosphere and life on our planet.

Studying the heliosphere

Scientists use various spacecraft and instruments to study the heliosphere and its interactions with the interstellar medium.

NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 probes, launched in 1977, have crossed the heliopause and entered interstellar space, providing valuable data about the heliosphere’s boundaries and the conditions beyond.

Heliosphere’s role in Earth’s habitability

The heliosphere’s protective nature plays a vital role in maintaining Earth’s habitability. By shielding our planet from the full intensity of galactic cosmic rays, the heliosphere helps to preserve Earth’s atmosphere and protect life from the harmful effects of high-energy radiation.

As we continue to study the heliosphere and its interactions with the interstellar medium, we gain a deeper understanding of the cosmic environment that surrounds our solar system and the importance of this cosmic shield for life on Earth.

The full study is published in the journal Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day