1977 was a big year in science: The Global Positioning System (GPS) was installed by the US Department of defense, the first MRI Scanner was tested in Brooklyn (a device that would eventually save hundreds of thousands of lives), Star Wars IV: A New Hope premiered…and France had its last execution by guillotine (okay, maybe the last two aren’t really science news, but they are terribly interesting).
However, the most notable event in 1977 was undoubtedly the launch of Voyager I and Voyager II. These spacecraft were sent on an unmanned mission to explore the distant reaches of the outer solar system. Their mission was a complete success. The Voyager probes collected a vast amount of data on the gas giants of our solar system, greatly increasing our understanding of our large neighbors. After completing this leg of the mission, the spacecraft bid farewell to our Sun and our planet and began the long journey to interstellar space.
Over the course of their long journey to the edge of the solar system, the probes have not been idle. In 1990, Voyager I took the historic “Pale Blue Dot” photo, which was popularized by Carl Sagan and gave humanity a new perspective of Earth and our own significance (or lack thereof) in the cosmos. Moreover, each spacecraft has retained the capability of returning scientific data from a full complement of Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM) science instruments.
In December, Voyager 1 reached what scientists called a “magnetic highway.” This area was believed to be the final threshold of our solar system. It is where magnetic field lines from the sun connect with magnetic field lines from interstellar space, creating unique charged particles. It is, quite literally, a bridge between the cosmos. Scientists said they didn’t know how long it would take for Voyager 1 to cross this boundary, it could be anywhere from months to years.
Earlier today, a number of news agencies reported that this border had been breached. However, NASA reports that these findings are incorrect, and the Voyager I is still on the magnetic highway.
The new research argues that, on August 25th 2012, there was a sudden change in radiation levels measured by Voyager 1. The unique charged particles that were created by the interactions between the Sun and interstellar space virtually vanished. At the same time, measurements of galactic cosmic rays from outside the solar system spiked to amazing levels. What does this mean? The research reports that it seems like Voyager I had passed the limit of the Sun’s sphere of influence and entered the interstellar void of cosmic space.
However, the statement released by NASA’s jet propulsion labretory states, “In December 2012, the Voyager science team reported that Voyager 1 is within a new region called ‘the magnetic highway’ where energetic particles changed dramatically. A change in the direction of the magnetic field is the last critical indicator of reaching interstellar space and that change of direction has not yet been observed.” Hence, Voyager I is NOT in interstellar space.
Regardless, both spacecraft have adequate electrical power and attitude control propellant to continue operating until around 2025. At that time, science data return and spacecraft operations will cease. However, it seems that the spacecraft will, at the very least, have enough power for us to record its break from our solar system.Humanity finally breaching the bounds of our solar system…it is an amazing thought.
We’ll keep you updated.