Wednesday, 1 February 2012

NASA Probe Discovers 'Alien' Matter From Beyond Our Solar System

For the very first time, a NASA spacecraft has detected matter from outside our solar system — material that came from elsewhere in the galaxy, researchers announced today (Jan. 31).

Source: NASA
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," David McComas, IBEX principal investigator and assistant vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said in a news briefing today from NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

An international team of scientists presented new findings from IBEX, which included the first detection of alien particles of hydrogen, oxygen and neon, in addition to the confirmation of previously detected helium. [Images from NASA's IBEX Mission]

These atoms are remnants of older stars that have ended their lives in violent explosions, called supernovas, which dispersed the elements throughout the galaxy. As interstellar wind blows these charged and neutral particles through the Milky Way, the IBEX probe is able to create a census of the elements that are present.

Heavy elements in space

According to the new study, the researchers found 74 oxygen atoms for every 20 neon atoms in theinterstellar wind. For comparison, there are 111 oxygen atoms for every 20 neon atoms in our solar system, meaning there are more oxygen atoms in any part of the solar system than in nearby interstellar space, the scientists said in a statement.

"These are important elements to know quantitatively because they are the building blocks of stars, planets, people," McComas said. "We discovered this puzzle: matter outside our solar system doesn't look like material inside our solar system. It seems to be deficient in oxygen compared to neon."

The presence of less oxygen within interstellar material could indicate that the sun formed in a region with less oxygen compared to its current location, the researchers said.

Or, it could be a sign that oxygen is "locked up" in other galactic materials, such as cosmic grains of dust or ice.

"That leaves us with a puzzle for now: could it be that some of that oxygen, which is so crucial for life on Earth, is locked up in the cosmic dust?" asked Eberhard Möbius, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and a visiting professor at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. "Or, does it tell us how different our neighborhood is compared to the sun's birthplace?"

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