To infinity and beyond! Voyager 1 is indeed in interstellar space

To infinity and beyond! Voyager 1 is indeed in interstellar space

Summary: According to NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab, a solar storm has caused Voyager 1 to reach interstellar space.

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Voyager 1
Voyager 1, 37 years after its launch, had indeed reached interstellar space.

Some people had doubted that Voyager 1, launched in 1977 to explore Jupiter and Saturn, actually reached interstellar space in 2013. Those doubts are now gone.

According to NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), Voyager 1 has experienced a new "tsunami wave" from a solar storm. Ed Stone of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA, the mission's project scientist since 1972, explained in a statement, "Normally, interstellar space is like a quiet lake. But when our sun has a burst, it sends a shockwave outward that reaches Voyager about a year later. The wave causes the plasma surrounding the spacecraft to sing." This solar song has been detected by the spacecraft's cosmic ray and plasma wave sensors.

The solar explosions cause coronal mass ejections. This eruption of particles generate shockwaves that can be detected by Voyager even though it's almost 12 billion miles, or over 17 and a half light hours from Earth.

Here on Earth we "detect" coronal mass ejections as auroras and radio interference.

While the effects are far smaller for Voyager, they are detectable. "All is not quiet around Voyager," said Don Gurnett of the University of Iowa, the principal investigator of the plasma wave instrument on Voyager, which collected the definitive evidence that Voyager 1 had left the sun's heliosphere.

"The tsunami wave rings the plasma like a bell," added Stone in a statement. "While the plasma wave instrument lets us measure the frequency of this ringing, the cosmic ray instrument reveals what struck the bell — the shockwave from the sun."

This "ringing" of the plasma bell provided the key evidence that Voyager had entered interstellar space.

Some would still argue that Voyager 1 is still inside the solar system because it has to pass through the long period comets that come from the Oort Cloud. Since it will take Voyager 1 anywhere from 14,000 to 28,000 years to exit the Oort Cloud, and its Plutonium Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) are expected to run out of power sometime after 2025, this is close as we're likely to ever get to interstellar flight.

Unless, of course, NASA's Harold White's ideas for a true faster-than-light warp drive prove to be practical. In that case, we may yet bring Voyager home.

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Topics: Innovation, Nasa / Space

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21 comments
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  • Voyager is still in our solar system, of course

    but is also in the interstellar medium - which is to say that although it is still within the range of the sun's gravitational sphere of influence, it is now flying through cosmic radiation, dust, and plasma comparable to what you'll find anywhere between the stars.

    So both groups of scientists are right.
    Mac_PC_FenceSitter
  • "mission's project scientist since 1972"

    I guess it really is possible to spend one's entire career on a particular project. Does Dr. White get to retire when Voyager is finally out of range? And would he actually want to before then?
    John L. Ries
    • Voyager 1 isn't out of range in 2025

      would make for a long career. :)
      Mac_PC_FenceSitter
      • Actually out of juice then, rather than out of range

        NT
        Mac_PC_FenceSitter
        • Out of range would be hard to determine...

          ...until it actually happens (one never knows when something is going to malfunction). About all that can be said is that Voyager I will be out of service no later than 2025.
          John L. Ries
  • Voyager 1

    They just don't make space ships like they use to!
    BoxOfParts
    • V'Ger

      If only we knew the future of this space probe. Will it ever return to us? Will it seek out it's creator? Will the earth be doomed to a horrible end???

      One does not know...
      THavoc
      • I wouldn't bet on the malicious AI

        V'ger does have a rather close resemblance to Nomad (except it had much better toys).
        John L. Ries
    • They make them a lot better

      The amount of science streaming in from the current space probes makes Voyager look ancient, which it is in electronics terms. The plutonium power pack and simplicity is what gives it the longevity.
      Buster Friendly
      • Simplicity is an asset

        NT
        John L. Ries
        • Not on the science side

          It's not when the whole point is to collect data for scientific research. You want as many sensors and experiments you can cram on it.
          Buster Friendly
          • It always is on the design side

            Complexity and reliability are *always* inversely proportional (though back up systems are a definite plus). Accordingly, machines and computer programs should never be more complex than they need to be.

            Reality is complicated and scientific research is partly aimed at understanding those complexities; but that doesn't that mean the devices we create to gather the data need to be.
            John L. Ries
  • Sadly, FTL will likely be impractical for a long time.

    "Unless, of course, NASA's Harold White's ideas for a true faster-than-light warp drive prove to be practical."

    Sadly, FTL will likely be impractical for a long time.

    1) It requires exotic matter; matter which has essentially negative mass. Even with our huge, fancy particle accelerators which can create all kinds of crazy particles, we haven't a clue how to create such a thing.

    2) It might require massive amounts of power, matter, and exotic matter. While recent estimates are much lower, original estimates were ginormous, requiring more mass than the sun. Let's hope more recent estimates are accurate. We still need to figure out how to create that exotic matter, though.

    3) How to arrange the matter? This turns out to be a problem as well - if the ship is moving at superluminal speeds, it needs to arrange the matter at superluminal speeds. It might be that the only way to do it is to have it already arranged - so that it's more like a train track. Which may limit FTL travel to pre-defined routes.

    4) How do you navigate? With the track method, this may not me an issue, but if we don't need to do it on rails, we have the issue of not being able to see where we're going - we are, after all, moving faster than the light that normally gives us that information.

    There are also some issues concerning Hawking radiation, the effect of the drive on the environment around it, possibly having to arrange matter or exotic matter into impossibly thin strips, and the possibility of time travel and the paradoxes that come with it.

    So - unless a really large breakthrough is made, especially concerning creating the exotic matter required, it's unlikely to happen in the near future.
    CobraA1
    • Einstein still wins

      Bummer.
      John L. Ries
      • So far

        Newton also wins in most real world applications even though we know now that's a long way from the limits.
        Buster Friendly
        • Definitely

          For just about anything on Earth (visible, anyway), Newtonian physics is good enough. Relativity is primarily useful in astronomy, and quantum theory is only needed when working at the atomic level and smaller.
          John L. Ries
          • GPS and Relativity

            "Real-World Relativity: The GPS Navigation System"
            http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast162/Unit5/gps.html

            Interesting read ...
            Rabid Howler Monkey
          • Good point

            The satellites are far enough away and enough precision is required that relativity must be taken into account.

            I hadn't thought of it in connection with GPS, but it makes perfect sense.
            John L. Ries
    • The best point made .....

      number 4 ... faster than light -- how are you or a robot navigator going to see where the ship is going /
      /
      ivvaniskra281
      • I've heard

        I've heard it ain't like dusting crops.
        Buster Friendly