In new research, scientists are proposing that Earth is situated within an enormous magnetized tunnel surrounding the entire solar system.
As detailed in a new study accepted for publication at the Astrophysical Journal and uploaded to arXiv, researchers at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute, National Research Council Canada, and the University of British Columbia, this would explain the presence of two large, highly magnetic filamentary (rope-like) structures in the Milky Way with unexplained origins.
“Astronomers have long been puzzled by what these structures are,” said Dr. Jennifer West, Research Associate at the Dunlap Institute and first author on the report in an email to Motherboard. “I hope this is a step towards understanding the magnetic field of our whole Galaxy, and of the Universe.”
The North Polar Spur and the Fan Region have long been known as two of the brightest radio-emitting gas structures in the sky— but since their discovery in the 1960s, their exact identity has been the source of perplexion among the scientific community. Though invisible to the human eye, NPS and the Fan Region emit strong magnetic radio waves that are large, and highly visible through a radio telescope, enveloping the solar system.
“If our eyes could see radio light they would fill most of the sky,” West said.
Using a computer model that simulates what’s visible through a radio telescope, West and her colleagues mapped out the length and position of both structures, ultimately piecing together a theory that the two structures are not separate, as they’ve long been considered, but are part of the same, tunnel-like object.
“These have been a mystery to astronomers for the past 50 years and we are the first to propose a model that explains these structures as one single object that surrounds us,” West said. “Most previous work has studied them individually, as two separate and distinct objects.”
But landing on this conclusion was only possible when West reframed her vision of the galaxy—literally. While most researchers look at maps of the Milky Way with the North Pole at the top and the galactic center in the middle, West told Motherboard that redrawing this map from a different perspective, with a different center point, made viewing the connection between the NPS and the Fan Region easier. Because the structures are too far away to ever possibly visit by spaceship, she relies primarily upon computer models and telescopes for her assessments. West likens the work to drawing a three-dimensional rendering of your own house while stuck on your couch, unable to leave.
So, when she thought to reorient the galaxy map, West said that something clicked.
“Ever since I first saw a map of the sky as a radio telescope sees it, I have been fascinated by these structures and wondered what they are, and what is causing them,” West says. “The first time I made a radio map of our Galaxy using a different centre point was really a big ‘aha’ moment for me.”
“I love to spend time looking up at the stars in the sky and thinking about the vastness of the universe,” she added. “I really wish I could put on some radio glasses so that I could see this giant tunnel. But it reminds me that there is so much more out there than what we can see.”
According to the paper, the team plans to develop the model further and conduct more research, in the hopes that it can shed more light on the massive tunnel that may surround us, and other filament structures that are being revealed throughout the universe with new observations.