Bow shocks form the boundary between a magnetosphere and an ambient magnetized medium. This occurs when the magnetic field of an astrophysical object interacts with the nearby flowing ambient plasma. For example, when the solar wind, flowing with a relative speed of order 400 km/s, encounters the magnetic field of Earth, a bow shape boundary forms. For Earth and other magnetized planets, it is the boundary at which the speed of the stellar wind abruptly drops as a result of its approach to the magnetopause. For stars, this boundary is typically the edge of the astrosphere, where the stellar wind meets the interstellar medium.
For several decades, the solar wind has been thought to form a bow shock at the edge of the heliosphere, where it collides with the surrounding interstellar medium. Moving away from the Sun, the point where the solar wind flow becomes subsonic is the termination shock, the point where the interstellar medium and solar wind pressures balance is the heliopause, and the point where the flow of the interstellar medium becomes subsonic would be the bow shock.
This solar bow shock was thought to lie at a distance around 230 AU from the Sun – more than twice the distance of the termination shock as encountered by the Voyager spacecraft. However, data obtained in 2012 from NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) indicates the lack of any solar bow shock. Along with corroborating results from the Voyager spacecraft, these findings have motivated some theoretical refinements; current thinking is that formation of a bow shock is prevented, at least in the galactic region through which the Sun is passing, by a combination of the strength of the local interstellar magnetic-field and of the relative velocity of the heliosphere.
Bow shocks are also a common feature in Herbig Haro objects, in which a much stronger collimated outflow of gas and dust from the star interacts with the interstellar medium, producing bright bow shocks that are visible at optical wavelengths.
This article uses material from the Wikipedia article “Bow shocks in astrophysics”, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.