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Scientists from the Space Research Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Southwest Research Institute, and Boston University suggest that the ribbon of enhanced emissions of energetic neutral atoms, discovered last year by the NASA Small Explorer satellite IBEX, could be explained by a geometric effect coming up because of the approach of the Sun to the boundary between the Local Cloud of interstellar gas and another cloud of a very hot gas called the Local Bubble.
If this hypothesis is correct, IBEX is catching matter from a hot neighboring interstellar cloud, which the Sun might enter in a hundred years.
"If our hypothesis is correct, then we are catching atoms that originate from an interstellar cloud that is different from ours," says Dr. Maciej Bzowski, co-investigator of the mission and head of the Polish IBEX team.
This might mean that the Solar System could enter the million-degree Local Bubble cloud as early as the next century. "Nothing unusual, the Sun frequently traverses various clouds of interstellar gas during its galactic journey," comments Grzedzielski.
Such clouds are of very low density, much lower than the best vacuum obtained in Earth labs. Once in, the heliosphere will reform and may shrink a little, the level of cosmic radiation entering the magnetosphere may rise a bit, but nothing more. "Perhaps future generations will have to learn how to better harden their space hardware against stronger radiation," suggests Grzedzielski.