NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), a $169 million spacecraft has discovered what many scientists surmised; the sun has a comet-like tail. The less than 20 foot square craft, displayed the tail which couldn’t be seen before because it doesn’t shine, nor does it reflect light. Is the sun a comet?
No, it is a star. Both stars and comets have tails, which can usually be seen through a telescope. Our sun was not that easy.
“By examining the neutral atoms, IBEX made the first observations of the heliotail. Many models have suggested the heliotail might be like this or like that, but we’ve had no observations. We always drew pictures where the tail of the heliosphere just disappears off the page, since we couldn’t even speculate about what it really looked like,” said David McComas, lead author on the research and principal investigator for IBEX at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.
Scientists will not yet give as estimate to the length of the tail, but say it is no more than 1,000 times the distance from the earth to the sun.
IBEX uses ‘energetic neutral atom imaging,’ and measures the neutral particles within the heliosphere, which travel in a straight line.
“IBEX scans the entire sky, so it has given us our first data about what the tail of the heliosphere looks like, an important part of understanding our place in and movement through the galaxy,” Eric Christian, IBEX mission scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, stressed to journalists.
Brenda Dingus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, says that this discovery could be valuable in other projects such as Voyager I, and Voyager II.
“These two missions are incredible complementary. IBEX is like an MRI — you take an image of the whole body to see what’s going on — and the Voyagers’ are like biopsies.”
Is the sun a comet? No, but it has comet-like traits, such as a tail.
Alfred James reporting