Voyager tells us we live in a “fluffy” interstellar cloud

December 23, 2009: The solar system is passing through an interstellar cloud that physics says should not exist. In the Dec. 24th issue of Nature, a team of scientists reveal how NASA’s Voyager spacecraft have solved the mystery.
see caption“Using data from Voyager, we have discovered a strong magnetic field just outside the solar system,” explains lead author Merav Opher, a NASA Heliophysics Guest Investigator from George Mason University. “This magnetic field holds the interstellar cloud together and solves the long-standing puzzle of how it can exist at all.”

Right: Voyager flies through the outer bounds of the heliosphere en route to interstellar space. A strong magnetic field reported by Opher et al in the Dec. 24, 2009, issue of Nature is delineated in yellow. Image copyright 2009, The American Museum of Natural History. [larger image]

The discovery has implications for the future when the solar system will eventually bump into other, similar clouds in our arm of the Milky Way galaxy.

Astronomers call the cloud we’re running into now the Local Interstellar Cloud or “Local Fluff” for short. It’s about 30 light years wide and contains a wispy mixture of hydrogen and helium atoms at a temperature of 6000 C. The existential mystery of the Fluff has to do with its surroundings. About 10 million years ago, a cluster of supernovas exploded nearby, creating a giant bubble of million-degree gas. The Fluff is completely surrounded by this high-pressure supernova exhaust and should be crushed or dispersed by it.

“The observed temperature and density of the local cloud do not provide enough pressure to resist the ‘crushing action’ of the hot gas around it,” says Opher.

So how does the Fluff survive? The Voyagers have found an answer.