Hubble reveals ghostly light glow around the solar system

Researchers using data from the Hubble Space Telescope have made a strange discovery: a “ghostly light” surrounding our solar system. When light from stars, planets, and even the glow of starlight scattered by dust is taken into account, some “extra” light is still observed and astronomers are trying to figure out where it came from.

The researchers looked at 200,000 Hubble images in a project called SKYSURF, looking for any excess light beyond known sources. And they found a faint, consistent glow that could suggest a previously unknown structure in our solar system. One suggestion is that there could be a sphere of dust surrounding the solar system, reflecting sunlight and causing the glow.

This artist’s illustration shows the location and size of a hypothetical dust cloud surrounding our solar system. The astronomers searched through 200,000 images and made tens of thousands of measurements from the Hubble Space Telescope to discover a residual background glow in the sky. WORK: NASA, ESA, Andi James (STScI)

This idea is supported by NASA’s New Horizon mission, which flew past Pluto in 2015 and is now heading into interstellar space. While traveling past the planets in the solar system and beyond, the mission detected a faint backlight glow, although this glow was not as strong as the glow recently found.

“If our analysis is correct, there is another dust component between us and the distance where New Horizons made the measurements. That means it’s some kind of extra light coming from inside our solar system,” said one of the researchers, Tim Carleton of Arizona State University, in a statement. “Because our residual light measurement is higher than New Horizons’, we think it’s a local phenomenon not too far from the solar system. It may be a new element of the content of the solar system that has been hypothesized but not quantitatively measured until now.”

The source of this hypothetical cloud of dust is comets. These lumps of rock and ice traverse the solar system from different directions, and as they get closer to the sun, they heat up and emit particles of dust and ice. That could explain why there is a sphere of dust, which has remained hidden until now because it needed a large number of images from a highly sensitive tool like Hubble to observe.

The research is published in three articles in The Astronomical Journal and The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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