Decades-Long Changes of the Interstellar Wind Through Our Solar System

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Science  06 Sep 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6150, pp. 1080-1082
DOI: 10.1126/science.1239925

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Wind of Change

The flow of interstellar gas and dust through the solar system was thought to be unvarying, but Frisch et al. (p. 1080) show that there has been a significant variation of the direction of the flow of interstellar helium through the solar system over the past 40 years. The data, collected by 10 different spacecraft over much of the space age, hint of changes rather than constancy in the solar system's galactic environment.


The journey of the Sun through the dynamically active local interstellar medium creates an evolving heliosphere environment. This motion drives a wind of interstellar material through the heliosphere that has been measured with Earth-orbiting and interplanetary spacecraft for 40 years. Recent results obtained by NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer mission during 2009–2010 suggest that neutral interstellar atoms flow into the solar system from a different direction than found previously. These prior measurements represent data collected from Ulysses and other spacecraft during 1992–2002 and a variety of older measurements acquired during 1972–1978. Consideration of all data types and their published results and uncertainties, over the three epochs of observations, indicates that the trend for the interstellar flow ecliptic longitude to increase linearly with time is statistically significant.

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