If you could fly to the edge of our universe you'd find giant magnetic bubbles about 100 million miles wide.
That's what computer models digesting data from NASA's Voyager spacecraft, which are now close to 10 billion miles away from Earth, are suggesting as they try to figure out the information being beamed from the edge of our solar system.
NASA explains: Like Earth, our sun has a magnetic field with a north and south pole. The field lines are stretched outward by the solar wind or a stream of charged particles emanating from the star that interacts with material expelled from others in our corner of the Milky Way galaxy. "The sun's magnetic field extends all the way to the edge of the solar system. 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," said astronomer Merav Opher of Boston University.
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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.
So far, much of the evidence for the existence of the bubbles originates from an instrument aboard the spacecraft that measures energetic particles. Investigators are studying more information and hoping to find signatures of the bubbles in the Voyager magnetic field data, NASA said.
Understanding the structure of the sun's magnetic field will allow scientists to explain how galactic cosmic rays enter our solar system and help define how the star interacts with the rest of the galaxy.
NASA says galactic cosmic rays are subatomic particles accelerated to near-light speed by distant black holes and supernova explosions. When these microscopic cannonballs try to enter the solar system, they have to fight through the sun's magnetic field to reach the inner planets. "The magnetic bubbles appear to be our first line of defense against cosmic rays," points out Opher. "We haven't figured out yet if this is a good thing or not."
On one hand, the bubbles would seem to be a very porous shield, allowing many cosmic rays through the gaps. On the other hand, cosmic rays could get trapped inside the bubbles, which would make the froth a very good shield, NASA said.
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