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Space Science

NASA Finds Interstellar Matter From Beyond Our Solar System 75

An anonymous reader writes "For the very first time, a NASA spacecraft has detected matter from outside our solar system — material that came from elsewhere in the galaxy. This so-called interstellar material was spotted by NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), a spacecraft that is studying the edge of the solar system from its orbit about 200,000 miles (322,000 kilometers) above Earth. 'This alien interstellar material is really the stuff that stars and planets and people are made of — it's really important to be measuring it,' said David McComas, IBEX principal investigator."
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NASA Finds Interstellar Matter From Beyond Our Solar System

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  • Same atoms (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lord Lode ( 1290856 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @07:35AM (#38889495)

    What makes this material different from that of our solar system? It's got the same kind of atoms. And why do they say *that* material is what we're made from? As far as I'm aware, we're made from the material of *our* solar system, not that of another.

    • Re:Same atoms (Score:5, Informative)

      by SJHillman ( 1966756 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @07:40AM (#38889511)

      I think the idea is that most of the atoms we're made up of originate from before our solar system was formed. During the creation of our solar system, the matter was compressed, condensed, ignited or otherwise changed from how it existed as an interstellar gas and so doesn't exist in the same way anymore. It's not so much that we're interested in the individual atoms as we are in the collection of the interstellar material.

      • Re:Same atoms (Score:5, Informative)

        by DaPhil ( 811162 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @07:54AM (#38889609)
        It seems the point is that "matter outside our solar system [...] seems to be deficient in oxygen compared to neon." (from TFA). The newly found matter seems to be distributed differently: 74 oxygen atoms for every 20 neon atoms compared to 111 oxygen atoms for every 20 neon atoms within the solar system. I still don't understand the "material what we're mad from" part...
        • Re:Same atoms (Score:5, Informative)

          by JATMON ( 995758 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @09:04AM (#38890061)

          I still don't understand the "material what we're mad from" part...

          It has been a while since I took astronomy so I am sure that I will get some corrections, but I will give it a shot.

          Right after the big bang, the universe was mostly made of of just hydorgen and helinm. Most of the rest of the elements are produced by stars. During its life and depending on how big the star is, the fusion process in the star can produce elements up to iron (I think). When the larger stars (I think it is about 10 times the size of our sun and greater) die, they go supernova. This explosive process produces the heavier elements and also dstributes them back out into the universe and in time they become the stars and planets in other solar systems like ours. So we are made from the remnents of dead stars.

          Let the corrections begin :)

        • by geekoid ( 135745 )

          It was a Carl Sagan reference.

          Watch cosmos.

      • Re:Same atoms (Score:5, Insightful)

        by hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <bassbeast1968@gm ... minus herbivore> on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @09:14AM (#38890151) Journal

        Shouldn't you be able to find that material in abundance in the comets that go whizzing by as well as the great Oort cloud? Don't get me wrong, i'm really digging the "Small hard science missions" that NASA is focusing on I'm just trying to understand what makes THIS particular matter all that different from the stuff trapped all around us that didn't get sucked into any planetary formation.

        But if any NASA guys are here just let me say a big thumbs up, don't let the clueless try to drag you back into shooting meatbags into LEO, frankly you are giving us more hard science about how the universe works in a single one of these probes than in all the LEO missions the shuttle ever did. So keep sending the probes and if congress tries to screw you be sure to send a heads up to all the geek sites, we'll back you up. This is good work you are doing, and all the data your many probes are sending back will expand our knowledge of the solar system for decades. i know you guys don't hear this enough anymore since probes aren't sexy, but thanks for all the hard work and hard science you are giving us.

    • by Hentes ( 2461350 )

      There are heavy elements that the Sun doesn't contain.

    • by janimal ( 172428 )

      That's the question that came to my mind (and one the other replies do not address). How do you know you are dealing with interstellar dust? It's not the oxygen to neon density, that's just a clue. It might mean you're flying though a differently concentrated part of the solar system. TFA does not seem to say this. I'm inferring that it might be because the probe is able to catch dust coming from a specific direction.

      • Re:Same atoms (Score:5, Informative)

        by dkf ( 304284 ) <> on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @08:34AM (#38889853) Homepage

        You know you're dealing with something from outside the solar system because within the solar system, the solar wind (hot, fast-moving plasma) blows all diffuse material out very rapidly. If there's a large amount of material out at the edge of where we believe the boundary to be between the domain dominated by solar wind and the domain dominated by the rest of the galaxy, and that material has a composition not seen within the solar system, we can have as a very strong guess that its extra-solar. Anything else really is much less probable.

        Which isn't to say that it is of the same composition as the gas+dust cloud that formed the solar system. That's long gone and the solar system has moved a lot since then.

      • Re:Same atoms (Score:4, Informative)

        by jamvger ( 2526832 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @10:56AM (#38891237) Homepage
        The entire solar system condensed from the same rotating, swirling cloud. So the ratios of the elements are pretty consistent throughout. There do exist some differentiating processes, e.g. heavy atoms sink to the interior of planets, but the starting ratios for all parts of the cloud were the same.

        The incoming stream seen by IBEX has a O/Ne ratio falling significantly outside of the range expected for gasses of solar system origin.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I believe the "interesting" part is measuring the composition of the material, that is, the ratio between the different elements and if there are any interesting molecules there, like 'organic' chemicals. Of course, it doesn't mean all other interstellar stuff has the same composition, it's just interesting to compare this specimen to other solar-system based chunks.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by gmrath ( 751453 )

      How does this spacecraft find "interstellar matter from beyond our solar system" at a distance of 200,000 miles above the Earth while the Voyagers have found what at how many billions of miles from the sun? Differences in instrumentation? Wouldn't one expect any remaining interstellar matter to be cleared by the solar wind long ago given the range of 200 kMiles? Just asking.

    • Relax, the interstellar matter has been identified as Mitt Romney. Nothing to see here.

    • by ae1294 ( 1547521 )

      What makes this material different from that of our solar system? It's got the same kind of atoms. And why do they say *that* material is what we're made from? As far as I'm aware, we're made from the material of *our* solar system, not that of another.

      I want to know how it gained access to our celestial spheres and if it will do damage to the quintessence.... []

  • ... so shoot it down.
  • ...besides there being the possibility of molecules, in that stuff, we do not ( yet ) know. This stuff may, indeed, be more important than cynics deign to think.
  • by stevegee58 ( 1179505 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @07:55AM (#38889619) Journal
    Carl Sagan would be so happy!
    • As has been pointed out elsewhere, we're all star stuff. (Cue really cool B5 Year 2 ref here). I've found it entertaining to explain this to interested people, especially when I follow it up by asking, "So, how does it feel to be nuclear waste?"
      • by geekoid ( 135745 )

        Do you know who Carl Sagan is? Seriously, pulling out a B5 reference after someone has referenced the source is really weak sauce.

  • better than moon rocks! are these also completely worthless, but we will spend billions, even trillions to get one?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    This is not the first time matter from outside the solar system is sampled. Here's what NASA said in the press release:

    "...Previous spacecraft have already provided some information about the way the galactic wind interacts with the heliosheath. Ulysses, for one, observed incoming helium as it traveled past Jupiter and measured it traveling at 59,000 miles per hour. IBEX's new information, however, shows the galactic wind traveling not only at a slower speed -- around 52,000 miles per hour -- but from a dif

  • by mbone ( 558574 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @09:00AM (#38890029)

    Where to start. First, go out at night - all those little dots in the sky ? They're called stars, and are all outside our solar system. (This has been known, depending on your point of view, for at least 400 years, and probably for 2 or more millennia.)

    Second, it is pretty common for meteorites contain little inclusions of interstellar matter - organic matter [], silica [], and even (really tiny) diamonds []. And, while we are at it, a certain fraction of the micro-meteors observed with radar (to get their orbits) turn out to be interstellar [] as well. (The fraction of interstellar micro-meteors suggests that there may be a few kg-sized interstellar meteorites waiting to be picked up out of the thousands in the Antarctic meteorite fields, which would be something.)

    So, this is nice research, but it is only the first in its area, and it was silly of them to say "for the very first time."

  • by necro81 ( 917438 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @09:37AM (#38890363) Journal

    NASA Finds Interstellar Matter From Beyond Our Solar System

    If it is from beyond our solar system, it is, by definition, interstellar.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      Not exactly. Stellar material can be local to other stars or part of other stars and are therefore not interstellar. Things beyond our solar system are extrastellar. Some are interstellar, some are not.
    • NASA Finds Interstellar Matter From Beyond Our Solar System

      If it is from beyond our solar system, it is, by definition, interstellar.

      Alpha Centauri (the star) is from beyond our solar system. It is NOT "interstellar".

      • "Interstellar matter found WITHIN our Solar System" would be unexpected. "Interstellar matter found outside our Solar System" is redundant, for plain (non-jargon, non-specialist) meanings of the phrase "interstellar matter".

        "Ocean water found outside Hawaii" is unsurprising and redundant. "Ocean water found inside Hawaii" would be somewhat surprising (discounting wave action). "If it's beyond Hawaii, it is, by definition, ocean" is overgeneralized.

        GPP overgeneralized and missed the point a bit, but the naiv

  • by crunchygranola ( 1954152 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @09:58AM (#38890589)

    High energy cosmic rays originate outside of the solar system, which has been known for many decades. Some of them are even intergalactic - having energies so high that the galactic magnetic field of the Milky Way cannot trap them.

  • "the stuff that stars and planets and people are made of"

    I think we have a word for it: "matter."

    • "the stuff that stars and planets and people are made of"

      I think we have a word for it: "matter."

      Sh!!! They're dumbing it down for the Neocons.

  • You mean, outside our solar system? Funnily enough, I think that's where I'd start looking if I were looking for interstellar matter! If they found it, say, under the sofa in the astronaut's lounge, that would be another thing entirely!

    Isn't it all really interstellar matter though? For the same reason that the population of the Universe is 0! If you divide the amount of matter in our solar system by the amount of matter NOT in our solar system, the number is close enough to be zero that it may as well ac

  • Cause we know for sure what Interstellar Matter looks like, right?

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