The Voyagers 1 and 2 spacecraft measured the Sun sending a pulse like a “tsunami” into the interstellar medium, according to a new paper.

The pulse, called a global merged interaction region, comprised solar emissions that combined and then crashed into the boundary between the region of the Sun’s influence and interstellar space. Since the Voyagermissions were on either side of the boundary during this time, scientists were able to calculate properties of the disturbance, as well as previously unmeasured properties of the region of space called the heliosheath. It was a lucky series of events.


“I’m so thankful about the timing,” Jamie Rankin, the study’s first author and a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University, told Gizmodo. “If we didn’t have [the Voyager missions] in these different environments, then we wouldn’t have been able to do this, and if the Sun hadn’t put out this huge event at the that time, then we wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

Particles from the Sun influence a region called the heliosphere, which encompasses the solar system and space stretching far past Neptune. Past a region called the terminal shock, the winds slow below the local speed of sound, and an understudied, less-dense region of turbulence and low magnetic fields called the heliosheathbegins. Farther out lies the heliopause, which separates these slower particles from the particles of the interstellar medium. The heliopause is the farthest region influenced by the Sun’s particles, though the Sun’s gravity affects objects even farther out.

Scientists analyzing data from the Voyager missions found that in late 2012, while Voyager 2 was in the heliosheath, it measured a disturbance in the particles striking it from outside the solar system as they responded to a passing pressure wave.

Voyager 1 is currently cruising about 20 billion kilometres away into the deep, interstellar space. Its partner, Voyager 2 is also tagging close and on the verge of making an exit. Although it has no direct way of telling us much about space in that area, but it got there just in time to catch a rare flare-up in solar activity called Global Merged Interaction Region (GMIR) that enabled it to make one of its prime discoveries till date.

SEE ALSO: Physicists Just Recreated Sun’s Spiraling Solar Wind And Magnetic Field In A Tiny Lab

NASA astronomers have used the data from the Voyager probes to measure the pressure in heliosheath, the outer region of the solar system. For the first time, scientists were able to account for the total pressure that is exerted by the collision of force plasma, magnetic fields and particles like ions, cosmic rays and electrons on each other. What’s more, the pressure runs higher than expected.


Just like Earth has air pressure made up of air molecules drawn by gravity, space also has a pressure created by ions and electrons that when heated and accelerated by the Sun, create a giant balloon known as heliosphere. According to NASA, this zone extends millions of miles out past Pluto and at its edge, the Sun’s magnetic influence weakens due to particles from other stars and interstellar space.

SEE ALSO: NASA’s Sounding Rocket Will Figure Out Where Solar Flares Actually Come From

Back in 2012, Voyager 2 caught a giant wave of coronal mass ejections in the GMIR. This wave caused the number of galactic cosmic waves to temporarily decrease. For months later, Voyager 1 picked up a similar decrease in observations, just across the solar system’s boundary in interstellar space. The scientists not only measured the pressure in the heliosheath, but also the speed of sound.

NASA astronomers have used data from the Voyager probes to measure the bustle of particles rippling at the very edge of our Solar System, and discovered the pressure in the distant borderlands of our star is higher than they expected.

The results suggest "that there are some other parts to the pressure that aren't being considered right now that could contribute," says Princeton University astrophysicist Jamie Rankin.

Maybe there are entire populations of particles out there that haven't been taken into account yet. Or maybe it's just a little hotter than anybody figured. The researchers have a number of possible explanations to explore in future research.

While the discovery itself is interesting enough, it's the way they found it that makes for a truly fascinating bit of science.

As plasma in the shape of solar wind emanates from our Sun, it forms a 'bubble' we call the heliosphere. Fourteen billion kilometres away from the star, that wind effectively runs out of steam, as charged particles rapidly slow to subsonic speeds.

The edge of this bubble, called the heliosheath, is a zone where the density of those charged particles drops off and magnetic fields grow weak.

Beyond this messy border is a thin shell called the heliopause, where the haze of plasma blown out by the Sun trickles away, nudged by the subtle influence of our galactic neighbours as our star moves through space.

At this 'pause', the pressure of local interstellar space pushing in and the heliosheath pushing out must balance out. Knowing exactly what this looks like, though, is no easy task. We can make models to estimate, but nothing beats hard evidence.

Fortunately, we happen to have two probes passing through that part of the Solar System. Take a look at NASA's handy diagram below to see how it all fits together.

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