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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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  • 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 dkf ( 304284 ) <donal.k.fellows@manchester.ac.uk> 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:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @08:35AM (#38889863)

    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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @08:54AM (#38889977)

    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 different direction, most likely offset by some four degrees from previous measurements. Such a difference may not initially seem significant, but it amounts to a full 20% difference in how much pressure the galactic wind exerts on the heliosphere."


  • 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 :)

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

    by mbone ( 558574 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @09:07AM (#38890085)

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

    Not really, except for the short-lived heavy radionuclides. Even Uranium [ou.edu] has been seen in solar spectra.

  • 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.

"Conversion, fastidious Goddess, loves blood better than brick, and feasts most subtly on the human will." -- Virginia Woolf, "Mrs. Dalloway"