With a topic as complex as space exploration, confusion sometimes follows. Such has been the case with findings from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft. As the spacecraft edges further and further out into space, what it encounters is interpreted through the media as being “the edge of the solar system.” However, one NASA official pointed out that this is a misunderstanding.
“The Voyager team has never stated that Voyager 1 has left the solar system. It is close to leaving the heliosphere, which, to scientists, is not the same thing. The heliosphere is the bubble of charged particles the Sun blows around itself and is not the same as how scientists define the solar system gravitationally, which extends much further out to the Oort Cloud,” said Ed Stone, Voyager’s project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Voyager 1 is now estimated to be some 11 billion miles from the Sun. The spacecraft is poised to become the first man-made object to ever enter interstellar space.
“The Voyager team does think we are close to leaving the heliosphere since we are detecting so many interstellar particles. But we have seen no signs that we’ve gone beyond the influence of the Sun’s magnetic field into the embrace of the interstellar magnetic field. That’s why the team says we’re still inside the heliosphere. It is certainly a complicated region out there and unlike what scientists’ best-guess models have predicted. That’s the exciting part of exploration—you never know what you’re going to find,” Stone added.
These findings were announced in the journal Science detailing what is believed to be the last region of the solar system that Voyager 1 has to pass through before it leaves the heliosphere. The heliosphere is best described as a “bubble” that surrounds our Sun and its family of planets. The announcement in Science is but one of three papers that have been released on the subject.
Voyager 1 has entered into a region of space which has been dubbed the “magnetic highway.” A NASA-issued release detailed how charged particles from outside the heliosphere increased—as those originating from inside the heliosphere dwindle. These constitute two (of three) signs that suggest Voyager 1 has entered interstellar space. The final one, an abrupt change in the magnetic field, will suggest that the Sun’s influence has succumbed to the interstellar magnetic field.
“This strange, last region before interstellar space is coming into focus, thanks to Voyager 1, humankind’s most distant scout,” said Ed Stone. “If you looked at the cosmic ray and energetic particle data in isolation, you might think Voyager had reached interstellar space, but the team feels Voyager 1 has not yet gotten there because we are still within the domain of the Sun’s magnetic field.”
As for when Voyager 1 will actually reach interstellar space, scientists do not know when that will happen. It could take as little as several months—or as long as years. The heliosphere extends an estimated 8 billion miles beyond all of the planets in the Solar System outward from the Sun. It is powered by the various forces of the Sun. Outside this region, space is littered with matter from other stars.
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