NASA’s Voyager first spacecraft to exit solar system

September 13, 2013 7:09 am
One of the two Voyager spacecraft on August 9, 2002. Never before has a human built spacecraft traveled so far/AFP
One of the two Voyager spacecraft on August 9, 2002. Never before has a human built spacecraft traveled so far/AFP

, WASHINGTON September 13- Never before has a human built spacecraft traveled so far. NASA’s Voyager 1 probe has left the solar system and is wandering the galaxy, US scientists said.

The spacecraft, which looks like a combination of a satellite dish and an old television set with rabbit ear antennas, was launched in 1977 on a mission to explore planets in our solar system.

Against all odds, Voyager kept on moving and now is about 12 billion miles (19 billion kilometers) from our Sun in a cold, dark part of space that is between the stars, said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist.

“We are indeed in interstellar space for the first time,” said Stone, who is based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“We got there. This is something we all hoped when we started on this 40 years ago,” Stone said. “None of us knew anything could last as long as the two Voyager spacecraft.”

The twin spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, were sent off 36 years ago on a primary mission to explore Jupiter and Saturn.

They discovered new details about the nature of Saturn’s rings and found volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io.

Voyager 2 traveled on to Uranus and Neptune, before the duo’s mission was extended to explore the outer limits of the Sun’s influence.

The precise position of Voyager has been fiercely debated in the past year, because scientists have not known exactly what it would look like when the spacecraft crossed the boundary of the solar system and the tool on board that was meant to detect the change broke long ago.

However, US space agency scientists now agree that Voyager is officially outside the protective bubble known as the heliosphere that extends beyond all the planets in our solar system.

Their findings which describe the conditions that show Voyager actually left the solar system in August 2012 are published in the US journal Science.

NASA said Voyager 1 “is in a transitional region immediately outside the solar bubble, where some effects from our Sun are still evident.”

Voyager 1 with Voyager 2 a few years behind in its travels sent back data to scientists on Earth on August 25 last year, showing an abrupt drop in energetic charged particles, or cosmic rays, that are produced inside the heliosphere.

Scientists expected that the direction of the magnetic field in space would reverse at the barrier known as the heliopause.

The Voyager 1 magnetometer did not show this change, leading scientists to be extra cautious about declaring whether or not the spacecraft had left the solar system.

However, an analysis of data from Voyager’s plasma wave science instrument between April 9 and May 22 this year showed the spacecraft was in a region with an electron density of about 0.08 per cubic centimeter.

Astrophysicists have projected that the density of electrons in interstellar space would be between 0.05 and 0.22 per cubic centimeter, placing Voyager squarely in that range.

“This historic step is even more exciting because it marks the beginning of a new era of exploration for Voyager, the exploration of the space between the stars,” said Stone.

While the Voyager team has reached a consensus, not all are convinced.

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