Into the great unknown, into the wild blue yonder, past the second star on the right and straight on till morning: That’s where NASA’s Voyager 1 is heading. The remarkable spacecraft was launched 33 years ago, and it’s now reaching the edge of our solar system. Within a few years, NASA says, it will enter interstellar space.
Phil Plait reports on how researchers realized they’d reached a milestone in Voyager 1’s journey:
Over all those years, there has been one constant in the Voyager flight: the solar wind blowing past it. This stream of subatomic particles leaves the Sun at hundreds of kilometers per second, much faster than Voyager. But now, after 33 years, that has changed: at 17 billion kilometers (10.6 billion miles) from the Sun, the spacecraft has reached the point where the solar wind has slowed to a stop. Literally, the wind is no longer at Voyager’s back.
Read the rest of his post at Bad Astronomy.
80beats: The Edge of the Solar System Is a Weird and Erratic Place
80beats: Near the Edge of the Solar System, Voyager 2 Finds Magnetic Fluff
80beats: NASA Spacecraft Will Soon Map the Solar System’s Distant Edge
80beats: Voyager 2 Hits the Edge of the Solar System—and Writes Home
After three-plus decades of exploring the gas giants, passing the orbit of Pluto, and reaching points beyond, Voyager 2 has found something interesting near the edge of the solar system: surprisingly magnetic fluff. Researchers document their findings in this week’s Nature.
Of course, this fluff isn’t made from the dust bunnies you find under your bed, the ‘Local Fluff’ (a nickname for the Local Interstellar Cloud) is a vast, wispy cloud of hot hydrogen and helium stretching 30 light-years across [Discovery News]. Astronomers already knew this fluff was out there near the boundary area between our solar system and interstellar space. What surprised them is that the fluff is much more magnetized than they’d expected.
On Sunday, a small space probe with a big mission took off from Earth in a flawless launch, setting off on a two-year assignment to map the edge of our solar system. The Interstellar Boundary Explorer soared into space aboard an Orbital Space Sciences Pegasus rocket that fired as planned at 12:48 p.m. CDT, moments after dropping from the belly of a modified airliner that flew across the South Pacific near Kwajalein Atoll [San Antonio Express-News].
The $169 million NASA probe will settle into a long, elliptical orbit around Earth that takes it beyond the interference of our planet’s magnetosphere, and almost as far as the moon. From there the IBEX will record the impacts of particles that are formed at the edge of our solar system’s protected space, a region known as the heliosphere. The solar wind, a stream of charged particles spewing from the sun at 1 million miles per hour, carves out a protective bubble around the solar system. This bubble … shields against most dangerous cosmic radiation that would otherwise interfere with human spaceflight [AP]. At the edge of the heliosphere, the solar wind slows down as it slams into interstellar space; IBEX will observe the particles created in this “termination shock” to chart the solar system’s perimeter.
On October 19, NASA will launch the small Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) into orbit on a mission to map the turbulent edge of our solar system, where the solar wind slams into interstellar space. While it won’t actually travel beyond all the planets to investigate the solar system’s far reaches, the coffee table-sized spacecraft must escape the area where Earth’s magnetic field reigns, which could interfere with its measurements. The $169 million observatory is due to climb 200,000 miles (322,000 kilometers) above Earth and settle into orbit there for a mission of at least two years. For comparison, the moon orbits about 240,000 miles (385,000 km) from Earth [SPACE.com].
The edge of the solar system is currently being explored directly by the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts; both Voyagers launched 31 years ago and recently passed the point where the solar wind is slowed by interactions with the interstellar plasma, a point known as the termination shock. These crafts “are making fascinating observations of the local conditions at two points beyond the termination shock that show totally unexpected results and challenge many of our notions,” said [IBEX researcher David] McComas [World Science].
NASA celebrated its 50th anniversary yesterday, looking back on a half-century that saw the growth from an 80-person agency sending up the first communication satellites to a massive network of scientific and engineering hubs capable of sending the Voyager probes to the edge of our solar system and sending the robotic Mars Phoenix Lander to dig in the dirt on Mars.
But even as officials raised their glasses of champagne in celebration, many observers questioned NASA’s current direction and wondered whether it will have enough money to carry out its goals. “It’s a rather unfortunate time to be celebrating a 50th anniversary,” says space historian Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College. “Right now, we’re at best at a plateau, if not — I hate to say this — heading downwards” [USA Today].
The solar wind, a steady stream of charged subatomic particles that stream out from the sun at a speed of one million miles per hour, has dwindled to its weakest state since recording began, researchers say. While researchers already knew that solar winds fluctuate in 11-year cycles, the current doldrums trump the declines seen over the past 50 years. “We know that the sun has been this cool before, this inactive before,” said [physicist] Nancy Crooker…. “But that was prior to the Space Age, so we didn’t have actual physical measurements until now” [SPACE.com].
The data was collected by the first solar explorer, the Ulysses probe, which was launched in 1990 as a joint venture between NASA and the European Space Agency. The 17-year-old space probe, which circles the sun from a distance of about 337 million miles, has been studying the environment above and below the poles of the sun. It is just months away from shutting down because of freezing fuel [AP].
Nobody expected to take it this far. When NASA launched two probes named Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in the summer of 1977, scientists hoped the probes would get as far as Saturn during their five-year mission. Instead, the nuclear-powered explorers are still sending data home over 30 years after their launch, and are currently pushing through the boundary of our solar system into interstellar space.
A collection of five papers in tomorrow’s issue of the journal Nature [subscription required] analyze the data sent back from Voyager 2 as it reached a turbulent frontier known as the termination shock. The sun is constantly spewing out particles in all directions; as these particles move through the solar system, they are known as the solar wind. This wind pushes back against the interstellar plasma that exists throughout the galaxy. At the end of the solar system, the solar wind finally begins to lose out and its speed drops below the speed of sound (relative to the interstellar medium), resulting in a roughly spherical shell known as the termination shock front [Nobel Intent blog, Ars Technica].
Voyager 1 passed through the shock in a different region several years ago but vexed scientists by failing to send back data during that crucial transition. That made Voyager 2’s observations all the more critical. NASA says the probe encountered the termination shock over August 31 and September 1 of last year, and surprised researchers by crossing the boundary several times. The multiple crossings indicate that “the shock is not the steady structure that is predicted by the simplest theory,” says Len Burlaga of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “It is like a wave approaching a beach, that grows, breaks, dissipates, and then re-forms closer to shore” [Science News].
When the private space company SpaceX launches its Falcon 1 rocket at the end of July, it will bring an intriguing experiment into orbit: a small NASA satellite that could be maneuvered through space with an attached “solar sail.” The sail would be powered by photons from the sun hitting the reflective surface, a series of tiny impacts that can provide a boost in the frictionless void of space.
In a video, NASA scientists show off a satellite about the size and shape of a shoebox with four masts that spring out to support the sail, which measures 100 square feet when unfurled. If the sail is successfully deployed, NASA will experiment with using the sail to control the satellite’s altitude and orbital maneuvering.
To understand this technology’s potential, consider that it took the Voyager probes 30 years to get to the edge of the solar system where they are still hurtling outward further every day. Although slower to get started, a solar sail could catch up with a Voyager spacecraft in a single decade [Wired News].