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NASA spacecraft observes “alien” matter for the first time

A NASA probe has directly observed material from outside our solar system for the first time.
Ibex alien matter 2012 01 31Enlarge
Roughly the size of a card table, the Interstellar Boundary Explorer is one of NASA’s low-cost, rapidly developed Small Explorers spacecraft. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab/Courtesy)

A NASA probe has directly observed material from outside our solar system for the first time, National Geographic reported.

Samples of hydrogen, oxygen, and neon that drifted into the solar system from interstellar space were observed by the space agency’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) spacecraft, which orbits Earth 200,000 miles away, National Geographic reported. IBEX is studying the boundary where solar wind from the sun clashes with cold gases from interstellar space, the Associated Press reported.

"It's exciting to be able to have these first observations of alien matter – stuff that didn't come from our Sun or the planets, but came from the outside of our solar system, from other parts of the galaxy," David McComas, team leader for the IBEX program, said at a NASA news conference today, according to National Geographic. "We think these are really important measurements, because these elements are the fundamental building blocks of stars, planets, and people."

An analysis of the new IBEX samples show that our solar system appears to contain more oxygen than the interstellar space that surrounds it, the AP reported. Scientists said it’s possible oxygen might be hidden in dust or ice in interstellar space.

"That leaves us with a puzzle for now,” Eberhard Möbius, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and a visiting professor at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, told Space.com. “Could it be that some of that oxygen, which is so crucial for life on Earth, is locked up in the cosmic dust? Or, does it tell us how different our neighborhood is compared to the sun's birthplace?"

IBEX has made several intriguing discoveries since launching in October 2008. According to Space.com:

In 2009, IBEX detected a mysterious ribbon on the edge of the solar system made up of a stream of charged particles that travels a million miles per hour from the sun. In 2010, researchers announced that IBEX had witnessed the first-ever look at solar wind crashing into Earth's magnetosphere.

Analysis of the latest findings from IBEX appear in a series of papers in the February issue of Astrophysical Journal Supplements, according to National Geographic.

More from GlobalPost: A NASA study reviews scenarios for alien contact, and it's not pretty

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/weird-wide-web/nasa-ibex-observes-alien-matter-interstellar