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Monday 19 March 2018

Voyager becomes first man-made object to leave Solar System

Irene Klotz

Nasa's Voyager-1 spacecraft has become the first man-made object to leave the solar system, it has finally been confirmed.

Scientists had  been debating for more than a year as to whether NASA's 36-year-old Voyager 1 spacecraft has left the solar system and become the first human-made object to reach interstellar space.

By a fluke measurement, they now know definitively that it has.

The probe was launched in 1977 to study the outer planets in our solar system.

"We made it," said lead Voyager scientist Edward Stone, from the California Institute of Technology, today

The definitive piece of evidence came by chance when a pair of solar flares blasted charged particles in Voyager's direction in 2011 and 2012. It took a year for the particles to reach the spacecraft, providing information that could be used to determine how dense the plasma was in Voyager's location.

This undated artist's concept depicts NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft entering interstellar space, or the space between stars.
This undated artist's concept depicts NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft entering interstellar space, or the space between stars.

Extrapolating from the measurements, scientists believe Voyager actually left the solar system in August 2012. That summer, the spacecraft radioed back another key piece of information, showing a huge spike in the number of galactic cosmic rays from outside the solar system and a corresponding decrease in particles emanating from the sun.

Voyager 1, now 21 billion kilometres away from Earth, could not make the measurement directly because its plasma detector stopped working more than 30 years ago.

"This was basically a lucky gift from the sun," Stone said.

Plasma are basically charged particles and are more prevalent in the extreme cold of interstellar space than in the hot bubble of solar wind that permeates the solar system.

Scientists had been reluctant to conclude last year that Voyager had reached interstellar space because it was still picking up magnetic field measurements that were very similar to the sun's magnetic field.

Computer models had predicted a significant shift in the interstellar magnetic field's alignment.

"The magnetic fields is still something that puzzles us considerably," said physicist Gary Zank, with the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Scientists now believe the interstellar magnetic field is somehow draped around and twisted by the heliosphere, the bubble of space under the sun's influence.

Understanding how that happens is just one of the questions the Voyager team will attempt to figure out while the probe still has power. Voyager 1, and a sister spacecraft Voyager 2, use heat released by the natural decay of radioactive plutonium to generate electrical power for their instruments.

After 2020, scientists expect they will have to start turning off instruments, until around 2025 when the probes will be completely out of power.

Voyager 2, which is heading out of the solar system in another direction, has another five to seven years before it reaches interstellar space, said Donald Gurnett, a long-time Voyager scientist at the University of Iowa.

"We're in a truly alien environment," Zank said. "What Voyager is going to discover truly beggars the imagination."

The two Voyager probes, which were both launched in 1977 to study the outer planets, contain gold records etched with music, greetings, sounds and images from Earth. The project was spearheaded by astronomer Carl Sagan, who died in 1996.

With Voyager 1 having left the solar system, the next time it will encounter a star is in 40,000 years, when it flies about 1.7 light years away from a star in the constellation Camelopardalis called AC +79 3888.

"Voyager has once again joined the ranks of the great human journeys of exploration," Garnett said. "This is the first journey into interstellar space."

The research is published in this week's journal Science.


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