For the last 11 years, scientists with NASA have been studying IBEX spacecraft data to look at how the heliosphere changes over time. The data collected by the spacecraft covers an entire solar cycle, which is roughly 11 years. During that solar cycle, the activity of the Sun moves from high to low activity and back to high again.
IBEX has a long record of collecting data on the Sun and sheds light on how the heliosphere functions at its edges. The results of the study show that shifting of the heliosphere in great detail, allowing scientists to sketch its shape. The exact shape of the heliosphere has been debated for years.
IBEX, which is short for Interstellar Boundary Explorer, has been observing the boundary to interstellar space for over a decade to shed light on where our solar system fits with the rest of the galaxy. Researchers say as the Sun moves through the interstellar medium, it generates a hot, dense wave similar to the way that would be produced at the front of a boat moving through water.
The scientists call our cosmic neighborhood the Local Fluff, which is the cloud of super-hot gases that blooms around us. Where the Local Fluff meets the solar wind forms the edge of the heliosphere, which is called the heliopause. Right inside the heliopause is a turbulent region called the heliosheath.
The focus for IBEX is particles called energetic neutral atoms or ENAs, that form in that distant region of space. ENAs are created when hot, charged particles like the ones in the solar wind cloud with cold neutrals like those flowing from interstellar space. One interesting fact about neutral atoms is that they are diverted by the Sun’s magnetic field. Neutral particles move away from collisions nearly a straight line. IBEX’s mission is to survey the skies for the particles and note their direction and energy. It’s able to detect one about every other second, allowing it to map the interstellar boundary.