What happens at the edge of the solar system?

This is a drawing of what the edge of the solar system might look like, as envisioned by plasma physicist Merav Opher. One of the few women in this field, Opher is also one of the top scientists, of any gender, studying what happens at the edges of space. John Rennie has written a great profile of Opher and her work. You really should read it. I like Rennie's work a lot. He's one of those amazing writers who can make abstract, theoretical physics feel as immediate, intense, and important as it actually is. To wit:

“The edge of the solar system” is more than a turn of phrase. A tenuous, invisible wind of ionized gas billows off the sun at a million miles per hour, carrying with it the sun’s magnetic field. It does not radiate out infinitely: far beyond Pluto’s orbit, this solar wind abruptly slams into the thin interstellar medium and the scattered gaseous remnants of exploded stars. That border defines what astronomers call the heliosphere.

Just a few years ago, Opher played a key role in explaining why the heliosphere is unexpectedly lopsided and off-kilter. Now an assistant professor in Boston University’s astronomy department, Opher is interpeting data that suggests that part of the heliosphere’s edge may be a churning magnetic froth, which could have broad implications for astrophysics.

Read the full profile at Txchnologist

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  1. I wonder if there are any effects caused by the differences in density of the interstellar medium through which the Solar System moves. From what I gather, we’ve been travelling through the “local fluff” for maybe 50k years, and will come out of it in 10k more, when we’ll be back in a low density local bubble, kind of like we’re portaging across a swampy island in the middle of a large lake.

    That change is on such a short time scale compared to most of cosmology, and happens to correspond with human history, so it raises some questions. Does it have any impact on mutation rates due to changes in how much cosmic radiation gets through our magnetic envelope?

    Or maybe it demarcate’s Vinge’s “slow zones” and we’ll surface out of it to find a cacophony of interstellar communication.  ;)

    1. “” Or maybe it demarcate’s Vinge’s “slow zones” and we’ll surface out of it to find a cacophony of interstellar communication. ;)””

      Wow…I have never heard of that train of thought before. Here’s hoping!!

  2. “One of the few women in this field, Opher is also one of the top scientists, of any gender, studying what happens at the edges of space”

    Was this sentence necessary? Any gender? WTF does that even mean?
    How about “Opher is one of the top scientists studying what happens..”.

    1. If you want to ignore the fact that there are few women in the field, go right ahead. The rest of us consider it worth thinking about and maybe even changing.

    2. I agree. Without that statement I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash at her gender. I know that there are few female physicists, but putting her up on a pedestal isn’t going to help attempts to achieve more gender equality in the field.

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