As It Happens

Our entire solar system may exist inside a giant magnetic tunnel, says astrophysicist

You and everyone know you live inside a massive magnetic tunnel, according to new research from the University of Toronto.

University of Toronto study suggests distant space structures are connected by magnetized filaments

Jennifer West is a research scientist at the University of Toronto's Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics. (Jennifer West/University of Toronto)

Story Transcript

You and everyone you know live inside a massive magnetic tunnel, according to new research from the University of Toronto.

That's because Earth, the entire solar system and a few nearby stars are all encircled by a tunnel-like structure of magnetized filaments that are invisible to the human eye, says Jennifer West, an astrophysicist at the U of T's Dunlap Institute.

"If we could see radio light, we would see this bright stuff stretching all the way across the sky in several different directions," West told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Her findings were published this month in the Astrophysics Journal. 

West's findings are 15 years in the making, ever since she was a student and first saw a map of the sky in radio light.

That's when she first saw images of the North Polar Spur and the Fan Region, two massive and mysterious bright structures that are only visible through telescopes designed to pick up radio waves from space. 

"I've been thinking about it for a very long time, ever since I first learned to be a radio astronomer and looked at these maps and wondered: What is this and what's causing it?" she said.

A high-resolution map of the North Polar Spur, a structure in space only visible through radio telescopes. (ROSAT Mission/Max Planck Institute for extraterrestrial Physics/NASA)

Scientists have known about these two structures, which appear on opposite ends of our sky, since the 1960s. But their exact nature and location have long eluded astronomers.

Part of the problem, says West, is that scientists have almost exclusively studied them as completely separate entities.

But West theorizes they are, in fact, connected by a complex system of charged particles and magnetic filaments, forming a sort of tunnel that encircles the solar system and some outside stars.

She and her colleagues are the first scientists to suggest a link between the two structures, outside of a theory proposed in the footnote of a 1965 paper credited to scientists Don Mathewson and Doug Milne.

West took that kernel of an idea and decided to explore it using the vastly improved telescope data available to scientists today.

She and her colleagues built a computer model that calculated what the radio sky would look like from Earth.

That's when she had what she calls "a eureka moment" — something she notes is very rare in the usually slow, incremental work of science.

"I was looking at a map of the radio sky on the computer, and it's just like a map of the Earth. If you look at a map of the Earth, we almost always look at it with the equator in the middle.... And it's the same thing when we look at a map of the galaxy. Astronomers usually put the galactic centre in the centre of the map," she said.

"And I thought: What happens to this map if we look at it in a different way, and so put something else at the centre? And when I did that, it became much more evident that these two structures might actually be on either side of us, and opposite sides. And so that is what got me thinking about this picture, that maybe we're inside of something."

Using the computer model, West estimates the North Polar Spur and the Fan Region are located about 350 light years away from Earth, and made up of rope-like structures some 1,000 light years long.

An illustrated map of Milky Way Galaxy shows the position and size of the proposed magnetic filaments. (Jennifer West/NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt/SSC/Caltech/University of Toronto )

Bryan Gaensler, a professor at the Dunlap Institute and co-author of the publication, called it "extremely clever work."

"When Jennifer first pitched this to me, I thought it was too 'out-there' to be a possible explanation. But she was ultimately able to convince me. Now, I'm excited to see how the rest of the astronomy community react," he said in a U of T press release.

The findings could literally change how we see the world around us, West said. 

"Imagine that we are sitting inside of a tunnel ... and the rest of the galaxy is outside of that tunnel, and the rest of the universe is outside of that tunnel. But we're inside of it," she said.

"Because we're inside of it, we have to look through it all the time. And so I think it's a really important first step to understanding the broader universe."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge.

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