Our solar system has a comet-like tail. That’s what the illustrations on this page are depicting: a long tail streaming behind our heliosphere, the sphere of our sun’s influence. In other words, the round ball in these images is not the sun itself, but our entire solar system, out to the orbits of the farthest planets, dwarf planets, Kuiper belt objects and beyond. The edges of the ball mark the heliopause, where the sun’s influence ends and interstellar space – the space between the stars – begins. For the first time, a spacecraft has mapped out the structure of our solar system’s tail, which trails behind our sun as it orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy Not surprisingly, scientists are calling it the heliotail. The Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, is a NASA satellite that’s making a map of the boundary between our solar system and interstellar space. The video below explains more.
By combining observations from the first three years of IBEX imagery, scientists have mapped out a tail that shows a combination of fast and slow moving particles. The entire structure twisted, because it experiences the pushing and pulling of magnetic fields outside the solar system.
Bottom line: On July 10, 2013, NASA released a video explaining a new understanding of the solar system’s comet-like tail, made possible by a satellite called the Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.