Tag Archives: interstellar space

Hubble takes a look at both Voyagers’ interstellar path

Using the Hubble Space Telescope astronomers have taken a peek at the interstellar material that the two Voyager spacecraft will travel through as they move out and leave the solar system in the coming decades.

Voyager 1 is 13 billion miles from Earth, making it the farthest human-made object ever built. In about 40,000 years, after the spacecraft will no longer be operational and will not be able to gather new data, it will pass within 1.6 light-years of the star Gliese 445, in the constellation Camelopardalis. Its twin, Voyager 2, is 10.5 billion miles from Earth, and will pass 1.7 light-years from the star Ross 248 in about 40,000 years.

For the next 10 years, the Voyagers will be making measurements of interstellar material, magnetic fields, and cosmic rays along their trajectories. Hubble complements the Voyagers’ observations by gazing at two sight lines along each spacecraft’s path to map interstellar structure along their star-bound routes. Each sight line stretches several light-years to nearby stars. Sampling the light from those stars, Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph measured how interstellar material absorbed some of the starlight, leaving telltale spectral fingerprints.

Hubble found that Voyager 2 will move out of the interstellar cloud that surrounds the solar system in a couple thousand years. The astronomers, based on Hubble data, predict that the spacecraft will spend 90,000 years in a second cloud before passing into a third interstellar cloud.

This is very clever science. It allows data from Hubble to complement the data from the two Voyager spacecraft to better understand the interstellar regions that surround our solar system.

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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.

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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.

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Voyager 1’s future.

Voyager 1’s future.

Voyager 1 has enough nuclear fuel to keep doing science through to 2025, and then it will be dead, adrift. On its current trajectory, the probe should eventually end up within 1.5 light years of a star in Camelopardalis, a northern constellation that looks like a cross between a giraffe and a camel. No one knows if there are any planets around that star, nor if aliens will be in residence by the time the probe arrives. “But if they are there, maybe they will capture Voyager 1,” says mission scientist Tom Krimigis of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

In addition to the above silliness, the article gives a good summary of the real data that Voyager 1 is sending back about interstellar space.

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NASA has announced a press conference for later today about the Voyager spacecraft.

NASA has announced a press conference for later today about the Voyager spacecraft.

The rumors are that all the scientists involved with this data from this spacecraft now finally agree that Voyager has left the solar system. More to come.

The rumors were true: NASA has confirmed that Voyager 1 is out of the solar system and in interstellar space, and has been since last summer.

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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.

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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.

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After 35 years of travel, Voyager 1 has finally left the solar system.

After 35 years of travel, Voyager 1 has finally left the solar system.

There is still some dispute among scientists about this, but the evidence seems clear that the spacecraft has entered regions outside the influence of our solar system.

Update: Since this morning the scientists seem to be backtracking. They now claim that Voyager 1 has not left the solar system.

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More signs that the Voyager 1 spacecraft is about to enter interstellar space.

More signs that the Voyager 1 spacecraft is about to enter interstellar space.

For the last seven years, Voyager 1 has been exploring the outer layer of the bubble of charged particles the sun blows around itself. In one day, on July 28, data from Voyager 1’s cosmic ray instrument showed the level of high-energy cosmic rays originating from outside our solar system jumped by five percent. During the last half of that same day, the level of lower-energy particles originating from inside our solar system dropped by half. However, in three days, the levels had recovered to near their previous levels.

A third key sign is the direction of the magnetic field, and scientists are eagerly analyzing the data to see whether that has, indeed, changed direction. Scientists expect that all three of these signs will have changed when Voyager 1 has crossed into interstellar space. A preliminary analysis of the latest magnetic field data is expected to be available in the next month.

Based on this report, expect scientists to announce that Voyager 1 has left the solar system sometime before the end of the year.

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