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NASA Probe Provides Insight on Solar System’s Distinct Boundary

Several research papers published Monday provided scientific details of that crossing

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NASA, Solar System, Boundary
Data from the NASA spacecraft Voyager 2 has helped further characterize the structure of the heliosphere — the wind sock-shaped region created by the sun's wind as it extends to the boundary of the solar system, as depicted in this image released by NASA. VOA

The journey of NASA’s dauntless Voyager 2 spacecraft through our solar system’s farthest reaches has given scientists new insight into a poorly understood distant frontier: the unexpectedly distinct boundary marking where the sun’s energetic influence ends and interstellar space begins.

The U.S. space agency previously announced that Voyager 2, the second human-made object ever to depart the solar system following its twin Voyager 1, had zipped into interstellar space on Nov. 5, 2018, at a point more than 11 billion miles (17.7 billion km) from the sun. Several research papers published Monday provided scientific details of that crossing.

Both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched in 1977, designed for five-year missions. Voyager 1 left the solar system at a different location in 2012. Both are now traversing the Milky Way galaxy’s interstellar medium, a chillier region filling the vast expanses between the galaxy’s stars and planetary systems.

The solar wind — the unending flow of charged particles emanating from the outer atmosphere of the sun — creates an immense protective bubble called the heliosphere that envelopes the solar system. The boundary of the solar system — the place where the solar wind ends and interstellar space begins — is called the heliopause.

NASA, Solar System, Boundary
FILE – NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in space is shown in this artist’s rendering obtained from NASA in Washington, Dec. 10, 2018. VOA

‘Exciting time’

Voyager 2’s scientific instruments detected abrupt differences in plasma density and magnetic particles upon crossing the heliopause, the researchers said. The researchers said the heliopause appeared to be much thinner than expected.

Plasma — the fourth state of matter after solids, liquids and gases — exists in the solar system as a soup of the charged particles beaming continuously outward from the sun and clashing with interstellar plasma that darts inward from other cosmic events like stellar explosions.

“This is a very exciting time for us,” California Institute of Technology physicist Edward Stone, project manager of the Voyager program, told reporters. “We will see a transition from the magnetic field inside to a different magnetic field outside, and we continue to have surprises compared to what we had expected.”

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The electromagnetic junction just outside the heliosphere was thought to be a deeper transitional place of intermingling cosmic weather, but Voyager 2’s plasma wave instrument — built by University of Iowa researchers — detected sharp jumps in plasma density, much like two different fluids coming into contact with one another.

“Think of a cold front that forms when a very cold air mass comes down to the U.S. from Canada,” said Don Gurnett, professor of physics at the University of Iowa. “Here we find a very hot plasma mass coming outward from the sun that encounters the cold plasma in the interstellar medium. It does not surprise me that a sharp boundary forms.”

Scientists are still trying to understand the nature of interstellar space wind and how much of it can seep through the heliopause to reach planets in our solar system.

“We also have galactic cosmic rays, which are out in the interstellar space trying to flow in,” Stone said, referring to the fast-moving, high-energy atomic particles whizzing around the universe. “And some of them, only about 30 percent of what’s outside, can actually reach Earth.”

NASA, Solar System, Boundary
The U.S. space agency previously announced that Voyager 2, the second human-made object ever to depart the solar system following its twin Voyager 1, had zipped into interstellar space. Pixabay

Voyager 2 entered the interstellar medium far beyond the orbit of Pluto at a spot about 120 times further from the sun than Earth’s orbit.

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The research was published in the journal Nature Astronomy. (VOA)

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NASA Explore Technology To Build Future Homes Made of Fungi For Moon, Mars

Upon arrival, by unfolding that basic structure and simply adding water, the fungi will be able to grow around that framework into a fully functional human habitat

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NASA
Keeping that in mind, the myco-architecture project out of NASA Ames Research Center in California is prototyping technologies that could "grow" habitats on the Moon, Mars and beyond out of life - specifically, fungi and the unseen underground threads that make up the main part of the fungus, known as mycelia. Pixabay

Instead of habitats made of metal and glass, NASA is exploring technologies that could grow structures out of fungi to become our future homes in the stars, and perhaps lead to more sustainable ways of living on Earth as well.

Creating a livable home for future astronauts means doing more than growing a roof to go over their heads. Astronauts will need to have all their basic needs met, just like on Earth, and face the additional challenges of living in a harsh environment on a distant world, the US space agency said in a statement.

Keeping that in mind, the myco-architecture project out of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California is prototyping technologies that could “grow” habitats on the Moon, Mars and beyond out of life – specifically, fungi and the unseen underground threads that make up the main part of the fungus, known as mycelia.

“Right now, traditional habitat designs for Mars are like a turtle – carrying our homes with us on our backs – a reliable plan, but with huge energy costs,” said Lynn Rothschild, the principal investigator on the early-stage project.

“Instead, we can harness mycelia (vegetative part of a fungus) to grow these habitats ourselves when we get there”. Ultimately, the project envisions a future where human explorers can bring a compact habitat built out of a lightweight material with dormant fungi that will last on long journeys to places like Mars.

Upon arrival, by unfolding that basic structure and simply adding water, the fungi will be able to grow around that framework into a fully functional human habitat – all while being safely contained within the habitat to avoid contaminating the Martian environment.

Mycelia are tiny threads that build complex structures with extreme precision, networking out into larger structures like mushrooms.
With the right conditions, they can be coaxed into making new structures – ranging from a material similar to leather to the building blocks for a Mars habitat.

NASA
Instead of habitats made of metal and glass, NASA is exploring technologies that could grow structures out of fungi to become our future homes in the stars, and perhaps lead to more sustainable ways of living on Earth as well. Pixabay

That last layer of mycelia is what organically grows into a sturdy home, first activated to grow in a contained environment and then baked to kill the lifeforms – providing structural integrity and ensuring no life contaminates Mars and any microbial life that’s already there. Even if some mycelia somehow escaped, they will be genetically altered to be incapable of surviving outside the habitat, said NASA.

Mycelia could also be used for water filtration and biomining systems that can extract minerals from wastewater – another project active in Rothschild’s lab – as well as bioluminescent lighting, humidity regulation and even self-generating habitats capable of healing themselves. And with about 40% of carbon emissions on Earth coming from construction, there’s an ever-increasing need for sustainable and affordable housing here as well.

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The harsh environments of the Moon and Mars will require new ways of living – growing homes instead of building them, mining minerals from sewage instead of rock. “But by turning to the elegant systems of our own natural world, we can design solutions that are green and sustainable. Whether on distant worlds or our own ever-changing Earth, fungi could be what brings us boldly into the future,” said NASA. (IANS)