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Are The Voyagers In Interstellar Space

author
Carole Stephens
• Sunday, 08 November, 2020
• 8 min read

The mission objective of the Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM) is to extend the NASA exploration of the solar system beyond the neighborhood of the outer planets to the outer limits of the Sun's sphere of influence, and possibly beyond. This extended mission is continuing to characterize the outer solar system environment and search for the menopause boundary, the outer limits of the Sun's magnetic field and outward flow of the solar wind.

voyager interstellar space os
(Source: www.orlandosentinel.com)

Contents

The two Voyager spacecraft began the VIM operating in an environment controlled by the Sun's magnetic field with the plasma particles being dominated by those contained in the expanding supersonic solar wind. The first feature encountered by a spacecraft as a result of this interstellar wind/solar wind interaction was the termination shock where the solar wind slows from supersonic to subsonic speed and large changes in plasma flow direction and magnetic field orientation occur.

Voyager 1 is escaping the solar system at a speed of about 3.6 AU per year, 35 degrees out of the ecliptic plane to the north, in the general direction of the Solar Apex (the direction of the Sun's motion relative to nearby stars). Voyager 2 is also escaping the solar system at a speed of about 3.3 AU per year, 48 degrees out of the ecliptic plane to the south.

To check Voyager 1 and 2’s current distance from the sun, visit the mission status page. The heliosheath is the outer layer of the bubble the sun blows around itself (the hemisphere).

It is still dominated by the Sun’s magnetic field and particles contained in the solar wind. On Aug. 25, 2012, Voyager 1 flew beyond the menopause and entered interstellar space, making it the first human-made object to explore this new territory.

The Voyagers have enough electrical power and thruster fuel to keep its current suite of science instruments on until at least 2025. © Namath missions that humankind has sent farthest into space, a pair of NASA spacecraft called the Voyagers, are billions of miles from Earth.

voyager space 1977 interstellar path 2030 earth nasa trajectory craft flight wikipedia 1989 skypath 2nd wmnf profile becomes mission
(Source: www.wmnf.org)

The last time one of them took a picture of its surroundings was in 1990, after flying by Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus on its way to interstellar space, the mysterious expanse between stars. The bursts, they report, are caused by shock waves emanating from solar eruptions that spew particles out at a million miles an hour.

Scientists have observed similar phenomena closer to home, around Earth and our planetary neighbors, but never in interstellar space. “We’re really discovering that what we thought would be this quiet, pristine interstellar medium is actually disturbed considerably” by the sun, Don Burnett, a University of Iowa professor emeritus of physics and astronomy, who led the research, told me.

More than 40 years ago, Burnett designed and built one of the instruments on the Voyager mission that can sense such things. The sun releases a steady current of high-energy particles in all directions, all the time, and this solar wind encompasses the planets, their moons, and other celestial bodies in a protective bubble called the hemisphere.

Scientists had predicted that the breeze would stop where it met the cold particles of the interstellar medium, which is sprinkled with material left behind by supernovas, the deaths of other stars. But they didn’t know exactly where this sphere of the sun’s influence stopped until 2012, when Voyager 1 detected the beginning of a different cosmic environment.

“It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult for solar plasmas to cross that boundary,” Bill Kurt, a research scientist at the University of Iowa and Burnett’s co-author on the new findings, told me. As the Voyagers continue on their journey, eventually they will enter the Oort cloud, a region of icy objects past Pluto.

voyager map spacecraft voyagers interstellar solar system billion miles away space happened pioneer mission trajectories showing needs repair pioneers continued
(Source: www.kqed.org)

NASA was focused on swinging by our neighboring planets and moons to collect valuable data and beautiful pictures. In the years since, mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have turned off various components on the two spacecraft, from science instruments to heaters, rationing every watt of power to keep the machines going.

Someday, engineers may be forced to turn off one of the elements that help the spacecraft communicate with Earth, a process that takes about 20 hours each way. “If it does work, then we gain two more watts,” Suzanne Dodd, the Voyager project manager, told me last year.

About 5 billion years from now, when our sun dies in a dramatic process that will engulf our entire planet, the Voyagers will probably still be coasting through the galaxy. When the Voyagers do finally leave the solar system, they will enter, for the first time, a stretch of space that does not play by the sun’s rules.

The pictures from Voyager 1 and 2 allowed us to see lots of things for the first time. For example, they captured detailed photos of Jupiter's clouds and storms, and the structure of Saturn's rings.

This data will help us learn about conditions in the distant solar system and interstellar space. Unless something stops them, they will continue to travel on and on, passing other stars after many thousands of years.

voyager history nasa interstellar spacecraft jpl infographic flight years science
(Source: www.zmescience.com)

The missions that humankind has sent farthest into space, a pair of NASA spacecraft called the Voyagers, are billions of miles from Earth. The last time one of them took a picture of its surroundings was in 1990, after flying by Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus on its way to interstellar space, the mysterious expanse between stars.

The bursts, they report, are caused by shock waves emanating from solar eruptions that spew particles out at a million miles an hour. Scientists have observed similar phenomena closer to home, around Earth and our planetary neighbors, but never in interstellar space.

“We’re really discovering that what we thought would be this quiet, pristine interstellar medium is actually disturbed considerably” by the sun, Don Burnett, a University of Iowa professor emeritus of physics and astronomy, who led the research, told me. More than 40 years ago, Burnett designed and built one of the instruments on the Voyager mission that can sense such things.

The sun releases a steady current of high-energy particles in all directions, all the time, and this solar wind encompasses the planets, their moons, and other celestial bodies in a protective bubble called the hemisphere. Scientists had predicted that the breeze would stop where it met the cold particles of the interstellar medium, which is sprinkled with material left behind by supernovas, the deaths of other stars.

But they didn’t know exactly where this sphere of the sun’s influence stopped until 2012, when Voyager 1 detected the beginning of a different cosmic environment. “It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult for solar plasmas to cross that boundary,” Bill Kurt, a research scientist at the University of Iowa and Burnett’s co-author on the new findings, told me.

voyager interstellar space spacecraft mission data instruments scientists different nasa heliosphere crossed determined aboard comparing outer edge sci exploration reaches
(Source: www.sci-news.com)

As the Voyagers continue on their journey, eventually they will enter the Oort cloud, a region of icy objects past Pluto. NASA was focused on swinging by our neighboring planets and moons to collect valuable data and beautiful pictures.

In the years since, mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have turned off various components on the two spacecraft, from science instruments to heaters, rationing every watt of power to keep the machines going. Someday, engineers may be forced to turn off one of the elements that help the spacecraft communicate with Earth, a process that takes about 20 hours each way.

About 5 billion years from now, when our sun dies in a dramatic process that will engulf our entire planet, the Voyagers will probably still be coasting through the galaxy. When the Voyagers do finally leave the solar system, they will enter, for the first time, a stretch of space that does not play by the sun’s rules.

During a news conference held at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union today (Dec. 10), scientists and engineers said that while they're excited about crossing the boundary, both Voyager 2 and its twin probe have plenty of life left in them. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)The key challenge for the remainder of spacecraft operations is coping with the gradual loss of heat and power.

That means that eventually, the team will need to turn off instruments in order to coax as much science as possible out of the spacecraft before they can no longer operate. Right now, she estimates that the twin probes can operate for at least five, perhaps 10 more years with this gradual decay of science data coming back.

voyager cloud oort nasa heliosphere earth distances far journey space interstellar does astronomical last voyagers wolk universe down systems into
(Source: www.inverse.com)

And because of the current stage of the solar cycle, Voyager 2 may find itself crossing the menopause again as the sun's bubble expands around us. That means catching sight of lots of galactic cosmic rays, the incredibly high-energy atoms of a whole range of elements that are careening across the universe at nearly the speed of light.

“We're able to actually look at the galaxy through the clouded lens of our hemisphere and now take a step outside with Voyager and for the first time contemplate the vistas of our local galactic neighborhood.” (Image credit: NASA)Not only could Voyager 2's continuing journey tell us about our own neighborhood, but its insights may also shape how we understand exoplanets.

Within about 300 years, they will reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud, the sphere of comets surrounding our solar system. Once the Voyager probes leave our solar system entirely, they'll settle into a long, lazy orbit around the heart of the Milky Way galaxy for millions, if not billions of years, humanity's first emissaries into the surrounding vastness.

“This has really been a wonderful journey,” Voyager project scientist Ed Stone, a physicist at Caltech, said in a press briefing last week. “It’s just really exciting that humankind is interstellar, ” adds physicist Jamie Rankin, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University who wasn’t involved with the studies.

To make sense of Voyager 2’s latest findings, it helps to know that the sun isn’t a quietly burning ball of light. Our star is a raging nuclear furnace hurtling through the galaxy at about 450,000 miles an hour as it orbits the galactic center.

interstellar voyager space nasa enters entered official spacecraft probe its caltech planning
(Source: lifeboat.com)

The sun is also rent through with twisted, braided magnetic fields and, as a result, its surface constantly throws off a breeze of electrically charged particles called the solar wind. Eventually, the solar wind smashes into the interstellar medium, the debris from ancient stellar explosions that lurks in the spaces between stars.

Good thing, too: The protective hemisphere shields everything inside it, including our fragile DNA, from most of the galaxy’s highest-energy radiation. Understanding this threshold has implications for our picture of the sun’s journey through the galaxy, which in turn can tell us more about the situations of other stars scattered across the cosmos.

“It is our first platform to actually experience the interstellar medium, so it is quite literally a pathfinder for us,” says geophysicist Patrick Kohn, a program scientist at NASA headquarters. Voyager 2’s plasma instrument is still working just fine, though, so when it crossed the menopause on November 5, 2018, scientists could get a much better look at this border.

For the first time, researchers could see that as an object gets within 140 million miles of the menopause, the plasma surrounding it slows, heats up, and gets more dense. However, this plasma is so thin and diffuse, the average temperature around the Voyager probes remains freezing.

Another mystery appeared as Voyager 1 came within 800 million miles of the menopause, where it entered a limbo-like area in which the outbound solar wind slowed to a crawl. “Here's an entire bubble, we only crossed it with two points,” study coauthor Station Kimchis, the emeritus head of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory's space department, said at the briefing.

nasa voyager space interstellar system solar nearing could gov solarsystem exploration
(Source: solarsystem.nasa.gov)

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Sources
1 www.wordhippo.com - https://www.wordhippo.com/what-is/another-word-for/wallflower.html
2 www.merriam-webster.com - https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/wallflower
3 en.wikipedia.org - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erysimum