Voyager I: On the Solar System’s Exit Ramp

A new study reveals just how close humanity is to being an interstellar species

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NASA/ JPL-Caltech / REUTERS

This artist's concept shows NASA's twin Voyager spacecraft exploring a turbulent region of space known as the heliosheath

Voyager 1 is the Barbra Streisand of spacecraft: the farewell tour is eternal, but it never actually leaves. Babs is very much still with us, as my colleague Joel Stein demonstrated when he and The Divine Miss S took a one-hour road trip from Malibu to Beverly Hills last year. Voyager 1 is very much still with us too, but it’s been on the road a little longer (more than 35 years now) and has put a few more clicks on the odometer—11.5 billion miles (18.5 billion km) so far.

(PHOTOS: Voyager, 11 Billion Miles Later: Photos from the Depths of Our Solar System)

It’s been a long time since Voyager 1 actually had a planet to look at—since 1980, when it reconnoitered Saturn,  then whipped up above the plane of the plane of the solar system and began heading into the void. Its companion ship, Voyager 2, flew on the flat until it passed Neptune in 1989, then it too headed into the true deep waters of space. It was at that point that the title of the Voyager program was changed from the Voyager Outer Planets Mission to the Voyager Interstellar Mission. One thing was certain, both spacecraft would eventually leave the solar system and indeed head into the realm of the stars, but what was unclear was when. The answer is: not just yet, but Voyager 1 is getting very, very close, as a new paper in Science has just revealed.

The boundary of the solar system is by no means defined by the orbit of the last planet or even the more remote Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, the vast swarm of icy bodies that lie at an even further remove. Rather, it’s defined by the heliosphere, the vast windstorm of charged particles that stream outward from the sun. The end of the helioshpere is known as the heliosheath—where the outward-streaming charged particles bump up ageainst the inward streaming particles of deep space and come to a stop, and where the lines of solar magnetism change their orientation to match those of interstellar space.

(MORE: The Great, Belching Black Hole)

As I reported in March, there was a brief dust-up in the astronomical community when the American Geophysical Union (AGU) announced that Elvis had at last left the building—that Voyager 1 had indeed punched through the heliosheath. But the AGU quickly had to pull back from the claim. NASA, which built, launched and has operated the Voyagers throughout their long lives, acknowledged that new data showed that the ship had entered a significant new region of the solar system where the outward-flowing particles effectively stopped and the ones flowing in from interstellar space had taken over. But the magnetic field lines had not yet made the necessary shift. Said Ed Stone, Voyager’s longtime project manager during that debate:

“The Voyager team is aware of reports today that NASA’s Voyager 1 has left the solar system. It is the consensus of the Voyager science team that Voyager 1 has not yet left the solar system or reached interstellar space.”

That status hasn’t changed, but the new Science paper—actually a collection of three papers—better explains the ambiguous region in which Voyager 1 now finds itself. Reanalyzing data from last year, scientists determined that the spacecraft is now in a region it calls the heliosphere depletion region. The previously unidentified zone is characterized by a dramatic spike in cosmic rays—the exotic stuff that streams in from the stars—and an extreme decline in particles from the sun. So far, about what was expected—even if the measurements are better than ever.

(PHOTOS: Windows on Infinity: Pictures from Space)

Much more significantly, the magnetic field lines at last began to change significantly, with particles following the magnetic lines flowing out from the sun all but disappearing, meaning that solar magnetism was at last losing its influence and being overtaken by the interstellar magnetism. But the magnetic lines still did not change their direction, as they would have to if they were truly locking into the grid of deeper space. In a statement, Leonard Burlaga of  NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., the lead author of one of the papers said:

“…the magnetic field suddenly [doubled],  becoming extraordinarily smooth. But since there was no significant change in the magnetic field direction, we’re still observing the field lines originating at the sun.”

Making things messier still, the spacecraft crossed into and out of the heliosphere depletion region no fewer than five times in 2012. Since the spacecraft can hardly turn or go in reverse, that means the region itself was changing; Voyager was traveling through it the way an airplane flies through a ragged storm front, passing through clear and turbulent areas intermittently.

So when will the depletion region truly deplete, fully giving way to cosmos beyond? Could be tomorrow — or could be a year or more from now. The answer, as it has been for 30 years, is no one knows. But it’s a certainty that the Voyagers will eventually cross the invisible boundary, and that day, humanity will at last become a species of the stars.

VIDEO: NASA’s Proposed Asteroid Capture Mission

34 comments
JosephVignolo
JosephVignolo

It's interesting to consider that the material used to construct the twin Voyager spacecraft fell into the inner solar system billions of years ago when the sun and planets first formed. It remained trapped down here on the earth in the sun's gravity well for all that time until it was launched outward again back in the 1970's. So, as the Voyagers travel out of the solar system their structural material becomes the only significant collection of matter to ever leave the inner solar system again and return to interstellar space from where it came from originally.

cpc65
cpc65

The spacecraft is doing much better since they got rid of Neelix. 

oahumizu
oahumizu

What are they sending?  2 bit bytes?

KurtBriesemeister
KurtBriesemeister

Wouldn't it be ironic if after all of this that it encounters a planet like our own, and burns up in the atmosphere?

gtvracer
gtvracer

"species of the stars"?  Maybe the "space litterbugs", until we get warp drive going...

JJJingleheimerschmidt
JJJingleheimerschmidt

Imagine if it bumped into a wall, kind of like what happened to Jim Carey in the Truman Show..


forrest64
forrest64

The Voyager space craft were created by precursors of the NSA to listen to future communications between alien and earth intelligent life. It's Jimmy Carter's fault

MichaelSuperczynski
MichaelSuperczynski

Of course, we have to temper all the excitement with the fact that Voyager displays a map of where we are.

If (and I believe there is) there is intelligent life out there, let's hope they are friendly.

JamesSavik
JamesSavik

If you want to get some perspective on how amazing the Voyagers really are consider this: they launched in 1977.

Most of us don't have cars that old. They're still ticking along.


TONYF
TONYF

Super cool.  We might not be bored apes after all.

raktimd
raktimd

Some spelling mistakes: 

The end of the 'helioshere' is known as...

charged particles bump up 'ageainst' the inward streaming particles...

johnnyhands1
johnnyhands1

Thank you, Mr. Kluger, for following the developments of this spacecraft and writing this informative article - and letting us know about this inter-solar breakthrough event that will happen soon.

RickHunter
RickHunter

Imaging how much further we would be in our scientific studies as a species if we didn't have so many people who want to keep us in the dark ages because of their ignorance.

h0wen
h0wen

does the voyager still comunicates with earth? I mean, how much time does it takes to arrive the info from voyager to earth?

rickj007
rickj007

I wonder if there is a correlation between the variable "edges" of the helioshpere and weather on earth at the time the particles started at our sun?   

wrathbrow
wrathbrow

Technically we are all species of the stars. Without the explosion of previous stars years ago the heaver elements that make up the earth, planets and us would probably not exist. We are technology on our way there as well, but will we ever really get there? Who knows. The journey in part defines us, much like it did when Columbus set out for the new world, did not find the place he was looking for, but something worth discovering.

hadezee
hadezee

just the last sentence, too haughty - we are not yet : species of the stars . yes, an exiciting achievement, a first, since no other time of man on Earth has sent satellites this far out. still it also shows just how inadequate our present technology is confronting space distance. hats of to Voyageur 1 and 2 though ... these 2 satellites (Made in the USA) have taken all or us farther than we have ever been. 

michaeliakovidis
michaeliakovidis

A species of the stars is capable of colonizing space itself. Not sending trinkets or primitive robots into the unknown. We are at best 200 years from that time. Wait until you will be able to travel throughout the Solar System to our own colonies and then reach outwards. The story is cute but it is a reminder of our inability or unwillingness (our elites) to push forward. Because once you do push forward all your differences will become secondary issues.

AndrewGoetsch
AndrewGoetsch

Amazing. The first article I've seen out of a hundred that got the story right. It's good to know there are writers who don't try to act like experts after 30 minutes of halfassed research.

Brian80
Brian80

@oahumizu What?  There are 4 bits in a nibble and two nibbles in a byte.  What the heck is a 2 bit byte?

Unlo4
Unlo4

@raktimd Also: "whipped up above the plane of the plane of the solar system"



MaseWehrle
MaseWehrle

@raktimd Nice catch troll. Hopefully it didnt adversely effect your enjoyment of the article.

HenryCrum
HenryCrum

@h0wen It takes about 16.7 hrs if it is 18 billion km. away.

LarryLiebman
LarryLiebman

@MaseWehrle @raktimd When on a professional corporate site, it DOES ruin my enjoyment of the article when it is clear no one took the time to at least run the article through a spellcheck.