Density of neutral hydrogen in the sun's interstellar neighborhood

P. Swaczyna, D. J. McComas, E. J. Zirnstein, J. M. Sokół, H. A. Elliott, M. Bzowski, M. A. Kubiak, J. D. Richardson, I. Kowalska-Leszczynska, S. A. Stern, H. A. Weaver, C. B. Olkin, K. N. Singer, J. R. Spencer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


Interstellar neutral atoms, unlike charged particles, freely penetrate the heliosphere, allowing us to sample the physical state of the interstellar matter directly. Most interstellar hydrogen atoms are ionized before reaching the inner heliosphere and become energetic protons picked up by the solar wind and transported away from the Sun. Consequently, observations of interstellar hydrogen atoms by missions operating within a few astronomical units from the Sun are subject to significant systematic uncertainties. We analyze observations from the Solar Wind Around Pluto instrument on New Horizons, the first experiment to provide extensive measurements of the picked-up protons far from the Sun. Analyzing the density of these protons, we find an interstellar neutral hydrogen density at the termination shock of 0.127 ± 0.015 cm−3, i.e., ∼40% higher than previously thought. We show that the Voyager observations of the slowdown of the solar wind further support this value. This result resolves a problem of why energetic neutral atom fluxes, created from pickup ions by charge exchange with hydrogen atoms, are roughly twice that expected from numerical models. Our result also implies higher charge exchange rates at the heliospheric boundaries and, consequently, a less asymmetric shape of the heliosphere. Based on a previous study of the atom filtration in the heliospheric boundaries, we estimate the neutral hydrogen density in the unperturbed local interstellar medium of 0.195 ± 0.033 cm−3. This value agrees with astrophysical observations of the interstellar clouds in the Sun proximity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number48
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Nov 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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