For at least a year now, NASA has been waiting with bated breath for Voyager 1 to pass through the boundary of our solar system and become our first emissary to the stars. It’s been cruising the edge for some time, but when it finally leaves forever, it won’t be a satisfyingly clear punch-through — so it’s hard to say exactly when this will happen. Or happened. Now the spacecraft is in another strange new zone, where the influx of cosmic particles has been ramping up by the week.
Like city lights blinding the night sky, the sun blocks out a lot of the signals from our galactic neighborhood. Our star and its magnetic fields shield the planets from cosmic rays and the interstellar wind — by and large a good thing, but it’s somewhat frustrating if you want to study the galaxy in greater detail. We cannot see, for instance, the hydrogen signals that serve as the birth pangs of stars in our neighborhood. Until now — the Voyager spacecraft have seen it for the first time.
The Voyager 1 spacecraft might be crossing the interstellar boundary at the edge of our solar system much sooner than scientists thought, according to new data from the probe itself and from the Cassini spacecraft. This milestone — marking the first Earth-born object ever to leave the sun’s field of influence — could actually happen any day now. According to scientists' best estimates, it will happen by the end of 2012.
For decades, scientists have believed there to be a fairly well-defined boundary at the edges of our solar system, a region where the sun appears only slightly brighter than the rest of the spangled heavens. But as they sail through the blackness, humanity’s most-traveled spacecraft, the Voyager probes, have learned the lines are anything but clear. The edge of the solar system may not be a smooth edge at all, but a turbulent moat of roiling magnetic bubbles.
Next time you're marveling at the fact that Spirit and Opportunity have been roving Mars for over six years now, ponder this: the two Voyager spacecraft have been hurtling through our solar system for nearly 33 years. Today, Voyager 1 hits a mission milestone of operating continuously for 12,000 days. The spacecraft launched on September 5, 1977, while Jimmy Carter was president, and has now traveled 14 billion miles.
By Heather SparksPosted 12.11.2001 at 11:57 am 2 Comments
Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, in theaters December 22, begins with the question: What would happen if kids could make their parents disappear? Jimmy gets his wish but doesn't like it. But he is a boy scientist, and fashions all manner of outlandish inventions to defeat aliens, rescue his parents, and generally save the planet from evil. Reality isn't there yet, but it's close. A comparison.