Interstellar pickup ions are an ubiquitous and thermodynamically important component of the solar wind plasma in the heliosphere. These PUIs are born from the ionization of the interstellar neutral gas, consisting of hydrogen, helium, and trace amounts of heavier elements, in the solar wind as the heliosphere moves through the local interstellar medium. As cold interstellar neutral atoms become ionized, they form an energetic ring beam distribution comoving with the solar wind. Subsequent scattering in pitch angle by intrinsic and self-generated turbulence and their advection with the radially expanding solar wind leads to the formation of a filled-shell PUI distribution, whose density and pressure relative to the thermal solar wind ions grows with distance from the Sun.
This paper reviews the history of in situ measurements of interstellar PUIs in the heliosphere. Starting with the first detection in the 1980s, interstellar PUIs were identified by their highly nonthermal distribution with a cutoff at twice the solar wind speed. Measurements of the PUI distribution shell cutoff and the He focusing cone, a downwind region of increased density formed by the solar gravity, have helped characterize the properties of the interstellar gas from near-Earth vantage points. The preferential heating of interstellar PUIs compared to the core solar wind has become evident in the existence of suprathermal PUI tails, the nonadiabatic cooling index of the PUI distribution, and PUIs’ mediation of interplanetary shocks. Unlike the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft, New Horizon’s Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) instrument is taking the only direct measurements of interstellar PUIs in the outer heliosphere, currently out to ~47 au from the Sun or halfway to the heliospheric termination shock.