The Local Interstellar Cloud: An Overview

The "Local Fluff" is the giant cloud that houses our solar system

Local fluff
Our solar journey through space is carrying us through a cluster of very low density interstellar clouds. Right now the Sun is inside of a cloud (Local cloud) that is so tenuous that the interstellar gas detected by IBEX is as sparse as a handful of air stretched over a column that is hundreds of light years long. These clouds are identified by their motions, indicated in this graphic with blue arrows. NASA

As our Sun and planets travel through interstellar space in our part of the Milky Way Galaxy, we exist in a region called the Orion Arm. Within the arm are clouds of gas and dust, and regions that have less than average amounts of interstellar gases. Today, astronomers know that our planet and Sun is moving through a mixture of hydrogen and helium atoms called the "Local Interstellar Cloud" or, more colloquially, the "Local Fluff".

The Local Fluff, which spans an area about 30 light-years across, is actually part of a much bigger 300-light-year-wide cavern in space called the Local Bubble. It, too, is very sparsely populated with atoms of hot gases. Ordinarily, the Local Fluff would be destroyed by the pressure of the heated material in the Bubble, but not the Fluff. Scientists hypothesize that it could be the cloud's magnetism that saves it from destruction. 

The Local Bubble.
The Local Bubble, in an artist's concept. This is cavity in the interstellar medium that is relatively empty of gases, compared to the region outside the bubble.  NASA

The solar system's trip through the Local Fluff began between 44,000 and 150,000 years ago, and it may exit in the next 20,000 years when it could enter another cloud called the G Complex. 

The "atmosphere" of the Local Interstellar Cloud is incredibly thin, with less than an atom of gas per cubic centimeter. For comparison, the top of Earth's atmosphere (where it blends into interplanetary space), has 12,000,000,000,000 atoms per cubic centimeter. It is almost as hot as the surface of the Sun, but because the cloud is so attenuated in space, it cannot hold that heat. 

Discovery

Astronomers have known about this cloud for several decades. They've used Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories to "probe" the cloud and light from distant stars as a sort of "candle" to view it more closely. The light travels through the cloud is picked up by detectors on the telescopes. Astronomers then use an instrument called a spectrograph (or a spectroscope) to break the light into its component wavelengths. The end result is a graph called a spectrum, which — among other things — tells scientists what elements exist in the cloud. Tiny "dropouts" in the spectrum indicate where elements absorbed the light as it passed through. It's an indirect way of seeing what would otherwise be very difficult to detect, particularly in interstellar space. 

Origins 

Astronomers have long wondered how the cavernous Local Bubble and the Local Fluff and the nearby G Complex clouds were formed. The gases in the larger Local Bubble likely came from supernova explosions in the past 20 million years or so. During these catastrophic events, massive old stars blasted their outer layers and atmospheres to space at high speeds, sending out a bubble of superheated gases.

A supernova bubble of expanding debris.
A bubble of expanding debris from a supernova called G1.9+0.3. Such explosions crash through the interstellar medium and may be implicated in the formation of clouds like the LIC. NASA 

Hot Young Stars and the Fluff

The Fluff had a different origin. Massive hot young stars send gas out to space, particularly in their early stages. There are several associations of these stars — called OB stars — near the solar system. The closest is the Scorpius-Centaurus Association, named for the region of sky where they exist (in this case, the area covered by the constellations Scorpius and Centaurus (which contains the closest stars to Earth: Alpha, Beta, and Proxima Centauri)). It is very likely that this star formation region is, in fact, the local interstellar cloud and that the G complex next door also came from the hot young stars that are still being born in the Sco-Cen Association. 

Hot young stars sending expanding bubbles through the interstellar medium.
The hot furious winds from newborn stars such as these shown here in a Spitzer Space Telescope image may also play a role in creating regions such as the Local Fluff. NASA/Spitzer/IPAC 

Can the Cloud Hurt Us?

Earth and the other planets are relatively protected from the magnetic fields and radiation in the Local Interstellar Cloud by the Sun's heliosphere — the extent of the solar wind. It extends well out beyond the orbit of dwarf planet Pluto. Data from the Voyager 1 spacecraft have confirmed the existence of the Local Fluff by detecting the strong magnetic fields it contains. Another probe, called IBEX, has also studied the interaction between the solar wind and the Local Fluff, in an effort to map the region of space that acts as a boundary between the heliosphere and the Local Fluff. 

In the long run, the path the solar system follows through these clouds could protect the Sun and planets from higher rates of radiation in the galaxy. As the solar system travels through the galaxy during its 220-million-year orbit, it's likely to move in and out of clouds, with interesting implications for the future of life on our planet.

Fast Facts

  • The Local Interstellar Cloud is a "bubble" in interstellar space.
  • The solar system has been moving through the cloud and a local region called "The Local Fluff" for tens of thousands of years.
  • These caverns can be caused by the strong winds from young stars and stellar explosions called supernovae.

Sources

  • Grossman, Lisa. “Solar System Caught in an Interstellar Tempest.” New Scientist, New Scientist, www.newscientist.com/article/dn24153-solar-system-caught-in-an-interstellar-tempest/.
  • NASA, NASA, science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2009/23dec_voyager.
  • “The Interstellar Cloud Is Bringing Space Weather to Our Solar System.” Gaia, www.gaia.com/article/are-interstellar-clouds-raining-on-our-solar-system.