NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer methodically measures samples of particles that come into the solar system from far outside, the agency reported in a release Tuesday.
And the material from out in the galaxy is different from what exists in our solar system, it said.
"We've directly measured four separate types of atoms from interstellar space and the composition just doesn't match up with what we see in the solar system," Eric Christian, mission scientist for IBEX at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said. "IBEX's observations shed a whole new light on the mysterious zone where the solar system ends and interstellar space begins."
The data, which show more oxygen atoms exists in the solar system than in the local interstellar space, will affect current models of how our solar system, and life, formed, researchers said.
"Our solar system is different than the space right outside it and that suggests two possibilities," David McComas, principal IBEX investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said. "Either the solar system evolved in a separate, more oxygen-rich part of the galaxy than where we currently reside or a great deal of critical, life-giving oxygen lies trapped in interstellar dust grains or ices, unable to move freely throughout space."