Tag Archives: heliosphere

Voyager 1 on the edge of the solar system

Scientists using instruments on Voyager 1 have detected three shock waves pass over the spacecraft as it moves steadily away and outside of the solar system.

The waves were sent outward when the Sun emitted a coronal mass ejection. The spacecraft has been inside the third wave now for months, something that scientists at the moment cannot explain.

Voyager 1 might not have left the solar system

The uncertainty of science: Two scientists dispute the finding this year that Voyager 1 has entered interstellar space.

Voyager has yet to detect what scientists long predicted would be the calling card of interstellar space: a shift in the direction of the magnetic field. Scientists had expected the probe to encounter particles under the influence of the interstellar magnetic field draped over the outer shell of the heliosphere, inducing an abrupt shift. But the direction has remained stubbornly constant, and researchers can’t explain why. “This whole region is a lot messier than anyone dreamed of,” Christian says.

It’s a bit too messy for George Gloeckler and Lennard Fisk, Voyager scientists at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They wondered whether the magnetic field and particle density conditions measured by Voyager could exist within the heliosphere. In a paper accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, Gloeckler and Fisk argue that the outer heliosphere could allow an influx of galactic particles from beyond the bubble that would explain the density measurements.

The researchers’ analysis includes a way to definitively test the idea: If Voyager 1 is within the heliosphere, Gloeckler and Fisk note, then it should still be at the mercy of the sun’s magnetic field. If that were the case, within a year or so, Voyager should detect a 180-degree flip in the field’s direction, a regular occurrence caused by the sun’s rotation. “If that happens,” Gloeckler says, “Len and I will have a big celebration.”

I suspect that both sides are right, and that the transition into interstellar space is simply very complex. Some data will say the spacecraft is outside the solar system, while other data will say it is inside.

Scientists today published a new model that suggests that Voyager 1 actually entered interstellar space in July of last year.

Ad astra: Scientists today published a new model that suggests that Voyager 1 actually left the solar system and entered interstellar space in July of last year.

In describing on a fine scale how magnetic field lines from the sun and magnetic field lines from interstellar space can connect to each other, they conclude Voyager 1 has been detecting the interstellar magnetic field since July 27, 2012. Their model would mean that the interstellar magnetic field direction is the same as that which originates from our sun.

Other models envision the interstellar magnetic field draped around our solar bubble and predict that the direction of the interstellar magnetic field is different from the solar magnetic field inside. By that interpretation, Voyager 1 would still be inside our solar bubble.

This new model might very well explain the conflicting data received from the spacecraft, some of which said it was out of the solar system and some of which said it was not.

Voyager 1 has found the edge of the solar system to be far more complex than predicted by scientists.

The uncertainty of science: Voyager 1 has found the edge of the solar system to be far more complex than predicted by scientists.

Scientists had assumed that Voyager 1, launched in 1977, would have exited the solar system by now. That would mean crossing the heliopause and leaving behind the vast bubble known as the heliosphere, which is characterized by particles flung by the sun and by a powerful magnetic field.

The scientists’ assumption turned out to be half-right. On Aug. 25, Voyager 1 saw a sharp drop-off in the solar particles, also known as the solar wind. At the same time, there was a spike in galactic particles coming from all points of the compass. But the sun’s magnetic field still registers, somewhat diminished, on the spacecraft’s magnetometer. So it’s still in the sun’s magnetic embrace, in a sense.

Voyager 1 at the edge

This week the American Geophysical Union (AGU) is having its annual fall meeting in San Francisco. Due to the wonders of technology, they are now making their press conferences available to reporters on line. Thus, I will be posting periodic updates after each conference. This will allow my readers to get a heads up on stories they will be seeing in the mainstream press in the next few hours.

Right now they are wrapping up a press conference from the team of the Voyager 1 spacecraft, in which they have described the spacecraft’s status.
» Read more