Image: Artist's impression of NASA's IBEX spacecraft
NASA/GSFC
Artist's impression of NASA's IBEX spacecraft exploring the edge of our solar system.
By
updated 1/31/2012 4:51:46 PM ET 2012-01-31T21:51:46

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 Tuesday.

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 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.

  1. Space news from NBCNews.com
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online

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 the interstellar 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. [ Top 10 Strangest Things in Space ]

"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?"

IBEX also measured the interstellar wind traveling at a slower speed and from a different direction than was previously thought. The research now shows that the interstellar wind exerts 20 percent less pressure on our heliosphere, which is a protective bubble that shields our solar system from powerful, damaging cosmic rays.

"Measuring the pressure on our heliosphere from the material in the galaxy and from the magnetic fields out there will help determine the size and shape of our solar system as it travels through the galaxy," Eric Christian, IBEX mission scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in a statement.

A history of the universe
The results of the new study will also help scientists shed light on the history of the material in the universe.

"It tells us things about the part of space that we live in, and the interaction with that part of space with the rest of the galaxy," McComas said.

The observations from IBEX and the ability to determine the ratio of elements in space could help scientists understand how the galaxy has evolved and changed over time.

"I find it really exciting that right on our front doorstep, we can take a sample of this interstellar matter around us," Möbius said. "If you think back all the way to the Big Bang, there was only hydrogen and helium. Then stars and supernovas sprinkled it with heavy elements — if you imagine that we are made out of the material that has been belched out of the supernovas, and it is continuing. So, 4.5 billion years ago, the sun formed out of the solar nebula, and now we are sampling part of the Milky Way as it is today. It gives us nice data points — Big Bang and the sun's formation to what is our environment. Then modelers can go and trace how that material has evolved over time in the cosmos."   

The findings are detailed in a series of papers that were published today in the Astrophysical Journal.

NASA launched the IBEX mission in October 2008 to map the boundary between the solar system and interstellar space. The $169 million spacecraft was originally built for a two-year mission.

IBEX measures and counts particles called energetic neutral atoms, which are created in an area of our solar system known as the interstellar boundary region. Since its launch, the spacecraft has already made groundbreaking discoveries about the heliosphere and the boundary between our solar system and interstellar space.

In 2009, IBEX detected a mysterious ribbon on the edge of the solar system made up of a stream of charged particles that travels a million miles per hour from the sun. In 2010, researchers announced that IBEX had witnessed the first-ever look at solar wind crashing into Earth's magnetosphere.

You can follow SPACE.com staff writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcomand on Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

loading photos...
  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments