Astrobiology Top 10: Voyager 1 Officially Reaches Interstellar Space
New and unexpected data indicate Voyager 1 has been traveling for about one year through the plasma, or ionized gas, present in the space between the stars. Voyager is in a transitional region immediately outside the solar bubble, where some effects from our Sun are still evident. A report on the analysis of this new data, an effort led by Don Gurnett and the plasma wave science team at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, is published this week in the journal Science.
The Voyager team includes members from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md.
“The crossing is like Voyager leaving the hot, million-degree atmosphere of the Sun and entering into a region dominated by the ‘cold,’ 5,000-degree atmosphere of the galaxy,” says APL’s Stamatios (Tom) Krimigis, principal investigator for Voyager’s Low-Energy Charged Particle (LECP) instrument. “It’s like the first time a satellite [Sputnik] went beyond Earth’s atmosphere to an altitude of some 600 miles; Voyager is now leaving the solar bubble at an altitude of 11.3 billion miles. It’s another historic milestone.”
“Now that we have new, key data, we believe this is humankind’s historic leap into interstellar space,” adds Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “The Voyager team needed time to analyze those observations and make sense of them. But we can now answer the question we’ve all been asking: ‘Are we there yet?’ Yes, we are.”
Readings over the past year showed that solar particles had essentially all left and galactic particle intensities increased dramatically, says Matthew Hill, an LECP team member and space physicist at APL. “I remember saying then that if we had to decide based only on our LECP observations, we would say we crossed the heliopause last summer.”
But without a plasma sensor that could regularly measure the density, temperature and speed of plasma, Voyager scientists looked to the magnetic field, which didn’t change direction at all, seemingly indicating that the intrepid probe remained in the solar magnetic field. That changed when an unexpected gift from the Sun allowed Voyager 1 to make measurements of its plasma environment. A coronal mass ejection -- or a massive burst of solar wind and magnetic fields -- that erupted from the Sun in March 2012 provided scientists with the data they needed. When the material eventually arrived at Voyager 1’s location 13 months later, in April 2013, the plasma around the spacecraft began to vibrate like a violin string. On April 9, Voyager 1’s plasma wave instrument detected the movement.
The plasma wave science team went back through its recent data and found an earlier, fainter set of oscillations in October to November of 2012. Through extrapolation of measured plasma densities from both events, the team determined Voyager 1 first entered interstellar space in August 2012. This fit with data from other instruments -- such as LECP -- showing the spacecraft had crossed into a new region.
“We literally jumped out of our seats when we saw these oscillations in our data -- they showed us that the spacecraft was in an entirely new region, comparable to what was expected in interstellar space, and totally different than in the solar bubble,” says Iowa State’s Gurnett. “Clearly we had passed through the heliopause, which is the long-hypothesized boundary between the solar plasma and the interstellar plasma.”
The new interstellar plasma measurements led investigators to reconsider that Voyager 1 might actually have crossed the heliopause back in August 2012. By combining data from Voyager in 2010 and energetic neutral atom images of the heliosphere taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, Krimigis says, the LECP team estimated the location of the heliopause as being at 121 astronomical units, very similar to the boundary measured by Voyager 1 last summer at 121.6 AU. (An AU is the distance between the Sun and Earth, about 93 million miles.)
Indeed, the Voyager mission isn’t over. “The team’s hard work to build durable spacecraft and carefully manage the Voyager spacecraft’s limited resources paid off in another first for NASA and humanity,” says Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif. “We expect the fields and particles science instruments on Voyager will continue to send back data through at least 2020. We can’t wait to see what the Voyager instruments show us next about deep space.”
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