The Edge of Solar System
The point at which the Solar System ends and interstellar space begins is not precisely defined because its outer boundaries are shaped by two separate forces: the solar wind and the Sun’s gravity. The limit of the solar wind’s influence is roughly four times Pluto’s distance from the Sun; this heliopause, the outer boundary of the heliosphere, is considered the beginning of the interstellar medium. The Sun’s Hill sphere, the effective range of its gravitational dominance, is thought to extend up to a thousand times farther and encompasses the theorised Oort cloud.
The heliosphere is a stellar-wind bubble, a region of space dominated by the Sun, which radiates at roughly 400 km/s its solar wind, a stream of charged particles, until it collides with the wind of the interstellar medium.
The collision occurs at the termination shock, which is roughly 80–100 AU from the Sun upwind of the interstellar medium and roughly 200 AU from the Sun downwind. Here the wind slows dramatically, condenses and becomes more turbulent, forming a great oval structure known as the heliosheath. This structure is thought to look and behave very much like a comet’s tail, extending outward for a further 40 AU on the upwind side but tailing many times that distance downwind; evidence from Cassini and Interstellar Boundary Explorer spacecraft has suggested that it is forced into a bubble shape by the constraining action of the interstellar magnetic field.
The outer boundary of the heliosphere, the heliopause, is the point at which the solar wind finally terminates and is the beginning of interstellar space. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are reported to have passed the termination shock and entered the heliosheath, at 94 and 84 AU from the Sun, respectively. Voyager 1 is reported to have crossed the heliopause in August 2012.
The shape and form of the outer edge of the heliosphere is likely affected by the fluid dynamics of interactions with the interstellar medium as well as solar magnetic fields prevailing to the south, e.g. it is bluntly shaped with the northern hemisphere extending 9 AU farther than the southern hemisphere. Beyond the heliopause, at around 230 AU, lies the bow shock, a plasma “wake” left by the Sun as it travels through the Milky Way.
Due to a lack of data, conditions in local interstellar space are not known for certain. It is expected that NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, as they pass the heliopause, will transmit valuable data on radiation levels and solar wind to Earth. How well the heliosphere shields the Solar System from cosmic rays is poorly understood. A NASA-funded team has developed a concept of a “Vision Mission” dedicated to sending a probe to the heliosphere.
90377 Sedna (520 AU average) is a large, reddish object with a gigantic, highly elliptical orbit that takes it from about 76 AU at perihelion to 940 AU at aphelion and takes 11,400 years to complete. Mike Brown, who discovered the object in 2003, asserts that it cannot be part of the scattered disc or the Kuiper belt because its perihelion is too distant to have been affected by Neptune’s migration. He and other astronomers consider it to be the first in an entirely new population, sometimes termed “distant detached objects” (DDOs), which also may include the object 2000 CR105, which has a perihelion of 45 AU, an aphelion of 415 AU, and an orbital period of 3,420 years. Brown terms this population the “inner Oort cloud” because it may have formed through a similar process, although it is far closer to the Sun. Sedna is very likely a dwarf planet, though its shape has yet to be determined. The second unequivocally detached object, with a perihelion farther than Sedna’s at roughly 81 AU, is 2012 VP113, discovered in 2012. Its aphelion is only half that of Sedna’s, at 400–500 AU.
The Oort cloud is a hypothetical spherical cloud of up to a trillion icy objects that is thought to be the source for all long-period comets and to surround the Solar System at roughly 50,000 AU (around 1 light-year (ly)), and possibly to as far as 100,000 AU (1.87 ly). It is thought to be composed of comets that were ejected from the inner Solar System by gravitational interactions with the outer planets. Oort cloud objects move very slowly, and can be perturbed by infrequent events, such as collisions, the gravitational effects of a passing star, or the galactic tide, the tidal force exerted by the Milky Way.
Much of the Solar System is still unknown. The Sun’s gravitational field is estimated to dominate the gravitational forces of surrounding stars out to about two light years (125,000 AU). Lower estimates for the radius of the Oort cloud, by contrast, do not place it farther than 50,000 AU. Despite discoveries such as Sedna, the region between the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud, an area tens of thousands of AU in radius, is still virtually unmapped. There are also ongoing studies of the region between Mercury and the Sun. Objects may yet be discovered in the Solar System’s uncharted regions.
Currently, the furthest known objects, such as Comet West, have aphelia around 70,000 AU from the Sun, but as the Oort cloud becomes better known, this may change.