Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Astronomy, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Heliosphere: It's the sun's Twinkie. We're just along for the ride.
“Heliosphere: It’s the sun’s Twinkie. We’re just along for the ride.”

There are many complicated models of what our solar system looks like. Then there’s my model: the solar system is like a giant Twinkie, with a Red Hot candy jammed in one end.

Seriously, NASA. Why make things hard, when they could be so delicious?

So here’s how the Twinkie squishes:

The Red Hot, naturally, is the sun, radiating loose particles and waves of heat in all directions. With the candy, most of the particles are artificial cinnamon flavor and FD&C red #5, and they only make it as far as the nearest taste bud.

With the sun, the particles are solar wind — a plasmafied soup of protons and electrons — and they shoot outward at roughly 1.2 million miles per hour, give or take a speeding bullet or two.

The sun is therefore much more powerful than a Red Hot candy, but considerably less appetizing. And, so far as we know, non-fat. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Back to the model. The Twinkie represents the full spread of solar material, a region called the heliosphere. This bubble of sun-spewed plasma extends roughly 120 astronomical units — or A.U., the distance from the earth to the sun. That’s a very long way. Even wasabi pea particles don’t make it out that far.

The heliosphere doesn’t extend equally in all directions, though; hence the “Twinkie-shapedness” of the model. Remember that our sun is also constantly whirling around the galaxy at breakneck speed, which stretches the plasma bubble out behind it. Imagine the Twinkie as a speeding race car, with the Red Hot near the nose.

Or a Twinkie jet plane, if you like. Any method of theoretical Twinkie locomotion you prefer is fine. This is one of the main perks of stellar science, from what I understand.

The final bit of the heliosphere model is the outer part, where the delectable Twinkie cream turns into scrumptious Twinkie cake. In space, this interface is called the termination shock, and it’s where those plasma blasts from the sun finally slow down below the speed of sound. This happens when the solar wind interacts with the interstellar medium, a haze of gas and dust and cosmic rays flowing between the stars.

As the interstellar medium slows down the solar rays, the plasma stagnates and bubbles and clumps up — much like the spongecake cradling our Twinkie. This layer is called the heliosheath, and is immediately followed by the heliopause, where the solar wind finally disappears entirely. It’s the thin brown crust that marks the final boundary between Twinkie and not-Twinkie. When you pass the heliopause, you’re no longer in the solar system.

So how many man-made objects have made this journey out of the heliosphere, to boldly go where no Twinkie has gone before? One — or possibly none. Voyager 1, launched in 1977 to explore the outer planets, has been hurtling directly away from the sun at eleven miles per second since 1980. It’s believed that in August of 2012, Voyager 1 passed through the heliopause and out of the sun’s fiery clutches.

But because we don’t precisely know what the end of the solar system looks like, researchers are still proposing and conducting tests to determine exactly how “out” Voyager 1 is. If not yet, then it’s expected to pop through the heliopause within the next year or so, followed soon by Voyager 2.

(And if my petition to NASA goes through, next by Guy Fieri.)

Breaking an object out of the heliosphere will be quite an accomplishment, once confirmed. But why anyone would run away from a cinnamon-flavored Twinkie is beyond me.

Image sources: PlanetFacts (heliosphere diagram), Perfectly Crazy (Twinkie racer), DeviantArt / Jonnyetc (Winston’s big Twinkie), Rock ‘n Roll Ghost and GeekDad (Voyager Fieri)

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· Categories: Astronomy, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Coronal mass ejection -- don't cross the sun, or it'll set the whole building on fire.
“Coronal mass ejections: sometimes the ratio of badass to sunshine is too big.”

Here’s the thing about the sun: it’s always working. At night, you go to bed. You don’t see the sun, so maybe you think it’s sleeping, too, or out hitting on Class G babes at some seedy stellar hot spot.

But no.

While you’re drooling on your pillow, the sun is pulling double shifts on the other side of the planet. There are sidewalks in Saigon to warm, Tibetan teahouses to light, and those crystal waters lapping the Great Barrier Reef aren’t going to dapple themselves, the lazy bastards.

So the sun takes care of that business, and then reaches back around to tickle the other hemisphere, without so much as a lunch break. It’s tireless. It’s also unpaid, has no insurance, commutes a hell of a long way and occasionally gets so worked up it sets something on fire. Basically, the sun is our solar system’s Milton Waddams. Do not touch the solar stapler.

Instead of torching a building, though, the sun lets off steam with coronal mass ejections.

(Technically, it lets off plasma, which is to steam approximately what ghost chili extract is to Arby’s Horsey Sauce.

As the saying goes: if you’re going to eject substances in public, at least make it impressive.)

In addition to plasma and fused hydrogen and other ridiculously hot things that make napalm look like a cold water spritzer, the sun also creates intense magnetic fields. When two oppositely-directed fields come together — like a perfect storm of being relegated to the basement and having your precious Swingline swiped — something snaps.

On a good day, this might cause a solar flare — those impressive leaping arcs of fire you see in astronomy photos, curling off the surface of the sun. Solar flares are idiots. They put on a big show, like an undersized bully or a fresh business school graduate, but there’s no oomph. It’s all flash and no substance; solar flares are like the Cirque du Soleil of… well, the soleil.

Coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, on the other hand, will bite a planet in the ass. Also spawned by magnetic reconnections, CMEs are solar flares’ bigger, hotter, angrier brothers. And they’ll come at you, on average, like a billion tons of bricks riding a magnetized solar wind at over a million miles an hour. Because, on average, that’s exactly what they are.

(Except for the ‘brick’ thing. But plasma is scarier, anyway. You don’t fight off alien hordes with “brick rifles”. I’m just saying.)

When they slam through the Earth, coronal mass ejections wreak havoc on satellites, electric lines and radio transmissions. They’re like EMPs on steroids, whose steroids also took a bunch of steroids. The Jose Cansecos of electromagnetic phenomena.

Coronal mass ejections are also responsible for auroras, which are dancing lights near the North and South Poles that indicate our atmosphere is getting the shit kicked out of it by high-energy solar particles. Auroras are cosmic “Check Engine” lights, only much prettier and artsy-fartsy.

So I guess a CME has a little Cirque du Soleil in it, too. Just don’t say that to its face. Next time, it might decide to set you on fire.

Actual Science:
NASA Marshall Space Flight CenterCoronal mass ejections
NASA Goddard Space Flight CenterThe heart of space weather observed in action
EarthSkyWhat is coronal mass ejections or CME?
RedOrbitSun’s coronal mass ejections behave like Crab Nebula’s gas tendrils
ABC SciencePlasma plume defends Earth

Image sources: RedOrbit (coronal mass ejection), ZDNet (Milton Waddams), Obscure Gamers and FunnyJunk (Ash shooting bricks), General Depravity (aurora borealis)

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