Interstellar Space

Saturn Spacecraft Samples Interstellar Dust

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Of the millions of dust grains Cassini has sampled at Saturn, a few dozen appear to have come from beyond our solar system. Scientists believe these special grains have interstellar origins because they moved much faster and in different directions compared to dusty material native to Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has detected the faint but distinct signature of dust coming from beyond our solar system. The research, led by a team of Cassini scientists primarily from Europe, is published this week in the journal Science.

Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004, studying the giant planet, its rings and its moons. The spacecraft has also sampled millions of ice-rich dust grains with its cosmic dust analyzer instrument. The vast majority of the sampled grains originate from active jets that spray from the surface of Saturn’s geologically active moon Enceladus.

But among the myriad microscopic grains collected by Cassini, a special few — just 36 grains — stand out from the crowd. Scientists conclude these specks of material came from interstellar space — the space between the stars. 

Alien dust in the solar system is not unanticipated. In the 1990s, the ESA/NASA Ulysses mission made the first in-situ observations of this material, which were later confirmed by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. The dust was traced back to the local interstellar cloud: a nearly empty bubble of gas and dust that our solar system is traveling through with a distinct direction and speed.

“From that discovery, we always hoped we would be able to detect these interstellar interlopers at Saturn with Cassini. We knew that if we looked in the right direction, we should find them,” said Nicolas Altobelli, Cassini project scientist at ESA (European Space Agency) and lead author of the study. “Indeed, on average, we have captured a few of these dust grains per year, travelling at high speed and on a specific path quite different from that of the usual icy grains we collect around Saturn.”

The tiny dust grains were speeding through the Saturn system at over 45,000 mph (72,000 kilometers per hour), fast enough to avoid being trapped inside the solar system by the gravity of the sun and its planets.

“We’re thrilled Cassini could make this detection, given that our instrument was designed primarily to measure dust from within the Saturn system, as well as all the other demands on the spacecraft,” said Marcia Burton, a Cassini fields and particles scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and a co-author of the paper.

Importantly, unlike Ulysses and Galileo, Cassini was able to analyze the composition of the dust for the first time, showing it to be made of a very specific mixture of minerals, not ice. The grains all had a surprisingly similar chemical make-up, containing major rock-forming elements like magnesium, silicon, iron and calcium in average cosmic proportions. Conversely, more reactive elements like sulfur and carbon were found to be less abundant compared to their average cosmic abundance. 

“Cosmic dust is produced when stars die, but with the vast range of types of stars in the universe, we naturally expected to encounter a huge range of dust types over the long period of our study,” said Frank Postberg of the University of Heidelberg, a co-author of the paper and co-investigator of Cassini’s dust analyzer.

Stardust grains are found in some types of meteorites, which have preserved them since the birth of our solar system. They are generally old, pristine and diverse in their composition. But surprisingly, the grains detected by Cassini aren’t like that. They have apparently been made rather uniform through some repetitive processing in the interstellar medium, the researchers said.

The authors speculate on how this processing of dust might take place: Dust in a star-forming region could be destroyed and recondense multiple times as shock waves from dying stars passed through, resulting in grains like the ones Cassini observed streaming into our solar system.

“The long duration of the Cassini mission has enabled us to use it like a micrometeorite observatory, providing us privileged access to the contribution of dust from outside our solar system that could not have been obtained in any other way,” said Altobelli.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cosmic Dust Analyzer is supported by the German Aerospace Center (DLR); the instrument is managed by the University of Stuttgart, Germany.

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Voyager 1 Helps Solve Interstellar Medium Mystery

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NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft made history in 2012 by entering interstellar space, leaving the planets and the solar wind behind. But observations from the pioneering probe were puzzling with regard to the magnetic field around it, as they differed from what scientists derived from observations by other spacecraft.

A new study offers fresh insights into this mystery. Writing in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, Nathan Schwadron of the University of New Hampshire, Durham, and colleagues reanalyzed magnetic field data from Voyager 1 and found that the direction of the magnetic field has been slowly turning ever since the spacecraft crossed into interstellar space. They believe this is an effect of the nearby boundary of the solar wind, a stream of charged particles that comes from the sun.

“This study provides very strong evidence that Voyager 1 is in a region where the magnetic field is being deflected by the solar wind,” said Schwadron, lead author of the study.

Researchers predict that in 10 years Voyager 1 will reach a more “pristine” region of the interstellar medium where the solar wind does not significantly influence the magnetic field.

Voyager 1’s crossing into interstellar space meant it had left the heliosphere — the bubble of solar wind surrounding our sun and the planets. Observations from Voyager’s instruments found that the particle density was 40 times greater outside this boundary than inside, confirming that it had indeed left the heliosphere.

But so far, Voyager 1’s observation of the direction of the local interstellar magnetic field is more than 40 degrees off from what other spacecraft have determined. The new study suggests this discrepancy exists because Voyager 1 is in a more distorted magnetic field just outside the heliopause, which is the boundary between the solar wind and the interstellar medium.

“If you think of the magnetic field as a rubber band stretched around a beach ball, that band is being deflected around the heliopause,” Schwadron said.

In 2009, NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) discovered a “ribbon” of energetic neutral atoms that is thought to hold clues to the direction of the pristine interstellar magnetic field. The so-called “IBEX ribbon,” which forms a circular arc in the sky, remains mysterious, but scientists believe it is produced by a flow of neutral hydrogen atoms from the solar wind that were re-ionized in nearby interstellar space and then picked up electrons to become neutral again.

The new study uses multiple data sets to confirm that the magnetic field direction at the center of the IBEX ribbon is the same direction as the magnetic field in the pristine interstellar medium. Observations from the NASA/ESA Ulysses and SOHO spacecraft also support the new findings.

“All of these different data sets that have been collected over the last 25 years have been pointing toward the same meeting point in the field,” Schwadron said.

Over time, the study suggests, at increasing distances from the heliosphere, the magnetic field will be oriented more and more toward “true north,” as defined by the IBEX ribbon. By 2025, if the field around Voyager 1 continues to steadily turn, Voyager 1 will observe the same magnetic field direction as IBEX. That would signal Voyager 1’s arrival in a less distorted region of the interstellar medium.

“It’s an interesting way to look at the data. It gives a prediction of how long we’ll have to go before Voyager 1 is in the medium that’s no longer strongly perturbed,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist, based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who was not involved in this study.

While Voyager 1 will continue delivering insights about interstellar space, its twin probe Voyager 2 is also expected to cross into the interstellar medium within the next few years. Voyager 2 will make additional observations of the magnetic field in interstellar space and help scientists refine their estimates.

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched 16 days apart in 1977. Both spacecraft flew by Jupiter and Saturn. 

Voyager 2 also flew by Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 2, launched before Voyager 1, is the longest continuously operated spacecraft. Voyager 1 is the most distant object touched by human hands.
JPL, a division of Caltech, built the twin Voyager spacecraft and operates them for the Heliophysics Division within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
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