Scientists Reveal The Best Possible Route Out of Our Star System

All the celestial bodies in our star system are enveloped by a giant bubble made of charged particles constantly released by the Sun. 

This bubble is called the heliosphere and its boundary serves as the boundary of our solar system.

So if we ever wish to leave the solar system and travel to other stars, firstly we need to find a way to cross heliosphere.

Surprisingly, a group of scientists claims to have discovered the best possible exit route through this giant bubble. 

The heliosphere defends everything inside it including planets, astronauts, satellites, and other bodies from the cosmic radiation. However, to this date, scientists are unsure about its shape or size.

Scientists define the heliosphere as the region that is directly under the Sun’s influence. Some claim the bubble is croissant-shaped, but some consider it spherical, while many others believe it has the shape of a bullet or a beach ball. 

This confusion exists because one can’t figure out the exact shape of an object while being inside it.

“We are like goldfish trying to understand the fishbowl from the inside,” Sarah A. Spitzer, a research fellow at the University of Michigan, said in a statement.

This is why many scientists across the world including the study authors have been developing mission concepts to demonstrate how interstellar missions can leave the heliosphere and see it from outside. 

“A future interstellar probe will be our first opportunity to really see our heliosphere, our home, from the outside, and to better understand its place in the local interstellar medium,” Sarah Spitzer added. 

Mapping our exit from the heliosphere
Mission concepts have detailed info about the required vehicle, payload, and trajectories.

For instance, a 2021 mission concept report suggested that “a probe trajectory near 45 degrees off the nose of the heliotail, or the front of the sun’s directional motion,” will eventually take it out of the bubble.

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However, the new research claims that to exit the heliosphere, a space probe would have to follow a path that traverses the side of the heliosphere’s tail end. 

Researchers compared six probe trajectories going from noseward to tailward direction and found that maximum output and a clear view of the heliosphere shape are achieved when the probe exits through the tail.

“If you want to find out how far back your house extends, walking out the front door and taking a picture from the front sidewalk is likely not your best option. The best way is to go out the side door so you can see how long it is from front to back,” Marc Korn., study author and researcher at the University of Boston, explained.

Two Probes Have Already Crossed the Heliosphere

In 1977, NASA launched Voyager 2 and Voyager 1 respectively, to study interstellar space. The mission was successful and these probes became the first man-made objects to cross the heliosphere.

The Voyager spacecrafts were made to last only five years but they are still active and as of March 2024, they are at a distance of about 15 billion miles or 24 billion km away from the planet Earth. 

However, Voyager can no longer detect our Sun’s plasma activity and therefore, are unable to provide any information about the heliosphere. This is why many astronomers want NASA to approve an interstellar probe mission. 

A mission concept report from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory suggests that humans should aim for a probe designed to last 50 years. 

Such a probe would provide valuable info on the heliosphere and could also cover 30 to 90 billion miles of interstellar distance.

The research is published in the Astronomy and Space Sciences.

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