A Turbulent Heliosheath Driven by the Rayleigh-Taylor Instability

M. Opher, J. F. Drake, G. Zank, E. Powell, W. Shelley, M. Kornbleuth, V. Florinski, V. Izmodenov, J. Giacalone, S. Fuselier, K. Dialynas, A. Loeb, J. Richardson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


The heliosphere is the bubble formed by the solar wind as it interacts with the interstellar medium (ISM). The collimation of the heliosheath (HS) flows by the solar magnetic field in the heliotail into distinct north and south columns (jets) is seen in recent global simulations of the heliosphere. However, there is disagreement between the models about how far downtail the two-lobe feature persists and whether the ambient ISM penetrates into the region between the two lobes. Magnetohydrodynamic simulations show that these heliospheric jets become unstable as they move down the heliotail and drive large-scale turbulence. However, the mechanism that produces this turbulence had not been identified. Here we show that the driver of the turbulence is the Rayleigh-Taylor (RT) instability produced by the interaction of neutral H atoms streaming from the ISM with the ionized matter in the HS. The drag between the neutral and ionized matter acts as an effective gravity, which causes an RT instability to develop along the axis of the HS magnetic field. A density gradient exists perpendicular to this axis due to the confinement of the solar wind by the solar magnetic field. The characteristic timescale of the instability depends on the neutral H density in the ISM and for typical values the growth rate is ∼3 years. The instability destroys the coherence of the heliospheric jets and magnetic reconnection ensues, allowing ISM material to penetrate the heliospheric tail. Signatures of this instability should be observable in Energetic Neutral Atom maps from future missions such as the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP). The turbulence driven by the instability is macroscopic and potentially has important implications for particle acceleration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number181
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 1 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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