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Voyager 1 going Interstellar: “traveling in completely new territory”

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NASA launched Voyager 1 in 1977, before I was born, to explore the outer reaches of our Solar System and (hopefully) that which lies beyond our Solar System. It appears that Voyager will shortly begin that second phase. Now stationed approximately 11 billion miles from our sun, the spacecraft appears poised to travel into interstellar space. Amazing.

When that actually will occur, when the spacecraft will move beyond the heliosphere –the space within the impact of solar winds provided by our sun– and into the greater Milky Way (think of passing out of Roger’s Park and into the greater Chicago Area), cannot be precisely determined. And that is to be expected. We’ve never been here before, never traveled quite this far, and cannot accurately know beforehand how such a transition from heliosphere to heliopause to interstellar space is going to unfold. New knowledge completely, very exciting times.

Here’s where Voyager is now:

image from NASA

The latest data from Voyager 1 show the spacecraft is in a region of stagnation, where the stream of charged particles from the sun has slowed and the sun’s magnetic field has piled up, researchers said at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco.

“We’ve been using the flow of energetic charged particles at Voyager 1 as a kind of wind sock to estimate the solar wind velocity,” said Rob Decker, a co-investigator for Voyager‘s low-energy charged particle instrument at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “We’ve found that the wind speeds are low in this region and gust erratically. For the first time, the wind even blows back at us. We are evidently traveling in completely new territory. Scientists had suggested previously that there might be a stagnation layer, but we weren’t sure it existed until now.”

One of the highest rewards for reading coverage of space exploration is reading a simple sentence in plain words meant to assist in human visualization of space and time, which to me, seems impossible. I’m thinking of something like this:

Traveling a billion miles every three years, the Voyager probes won’t reach the vicinity of another star for another 40,000 years. 

Holy macks.

If all goes according to plan, the Voyager Spacecrafts should be operating until 2020, or as late as 2025. Think about everything that means to accumulation of human knowledge. A human made craft, traveling beyond the borders of our solar system, providing perhaps 15 more years of data to advance our scientific understanding of the universe.

For more on the Voyager mission, go to NASA, where else?

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Written by Christopher ZF

December 7, 2011 at 09:55