In 2009, using NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer, also known as IBEX, astronomers spied a strange ribbon-like structure dancing between our solar system and the rest of interstellar space.
The discovery of the IBEX Ribbon, which is invisible to both telescopes and the human eye, was one of scientists’ first forays into understanding more about our heliosphere—a bubble-like shield made up of solar winds.
“Most instruments that detect particles in space are detecting charged particles,” says Daniel Reisenfeld, a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and lead author of the study. But IBEX is unique.
It detects energetic neutral atoms, or ENAs—ions that originally come off the sun but collide with interstellar electrons, neutralizing them. These atoms can be found everywhere in space, and observing ENA fluxes across time can be a powerful imaging tool.
So what exactly was that mysterious ribbon? Scientists have since determined that what they were seeing was a giant swath of ENAs lighting up the night sky.
Using data IBEX collected on ENAs as it charted just one 11-year solar cycle, the time between shifts in the sun’s magnetic field, researchers built a three-dimensional map of the entire heliosphere, which Reisenfeld says shields Earth and other planets from harmful radiation.
“Our Earth gets bombarded by cosmic rays, galactic cosmic rays all the time,” he says. These rays can subtly affect airplanes that fly near the poles, often on trips between Europe or Asia and the US.
Scientists say that to study other planet’s astrospheres, which is what heliospheres are called when they surround other stars, we must first understand our own.
“A lot of physical models which are being developed right now are based on the discoveries of the IBEX mission,” says Nikolai Pogorelov, a professor of space science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “It’s not only experimental,” he says, adding that it “will be used for [a] real purpose.”