Sun's heliopaus photo

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The Sun's Heliopause


In addition to light and heat, the Sun continuously emits a 1 million-mile-per-hour stream of charged particles. This solar wind causes comets’ tails to always point away from the Sun, disturbs the paths of spacecraft, causes radio interference, the aurora borealis, and power line surges on Earth. As it expands out into space, the solar wind creates a magnetic bubble of ionized gas around the Sun in the rarified hydrogen and helium gas permeating the galaxy between the stars. This is known as the "heliosphere." This bubble’s outer border forms where the strength of the solar wind falls to that of the collective solar winds reaching us from the other stars in our galaxy (the interstellar wind). Known as the "heliopause," this boundary of the Sun’s influence separates our solar system from interstellar space. Estimated at 8-14 billion miles (three time Pluto’s distance) from the Sun, the heliopause may soon be reached by the Voyagers 1 and 2 launched back in 1977. The orbits of the outer planets, the heliopause, the interstellar wind, the bow shock, and the paths of the Voyager spacecraft are shown in the photograph above.

Before the heliopause is reached, however, the million mph solar wind falls to subsonic speed (about 250,000 mph) against the incoming interstellar winds, forming a standing shock wave called the "termination shock." Now subsonic, the solar wind is affected by pressure from the interstellar medium, forming a sheath around and trailing the Sun, the "heliosheath." As the Sun circles the galaxy, its advancing heliopause presses against the interstellar medium forming a turbulent region known as the "bow shock."

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© Carl Woebcke, The Heliopause, Heliosphere and Heliosheath, 1991-2017. All rights reserved.