It’s Official – Voyager 1 Has Entered Interstellar Space

NASAs Voyager 1 Spacecraft Enters Interstellar Space

This artist’s concept depicts NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft entering interstellar space, or the space between stars. Interstellar space is dominated by the plasma, or ionized gas, that was ejected by the death of nearby giant stars millions of years ago. The environment inside our solar bubble is dominated by the plasma exhausted by our sun, known as the solar wind.
The interstellar plasma is shown with an orange glow similar to the color seen in visible-light images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope that show stars in the Orion nebula traveling through interstellar space. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A newly published study has confirmed that the 36-year-old NASA Voyager 1 spacecraft has left our solar system and has entered interstellar space.

Pasadena, California — NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft officially is the first human-made object to venture into interstellar space. The 36-year-old probe is about 12 billion miles (19 billion kilometers) from our sun.

New and unexpected data indicate Voyager 1 has been traveling for about one year through plasma, or ionized gas, present in the space between 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 in Thursday’s edition of the journal Science.

“Now that we have new, key data, we believe this is mankind’s historic leap into interstellar space,” said 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.”


After decades of exploration, Voyager 1 reaches a historic milestone for mankind–interstellar space. Learn how the team discovered the craft had reached the space between the stars.

Voyager 1 first detected the increased pressure of interstellar space on the heliosphere, the bubble of charged particles surrounding the sun that reaches far beyond the outer planets, in 2004. Scientists then ramped up their search for evidence of the spacecraft’s interstellar arrival, knowing the data analysis and interpretation could take months or years.

Voyager 1 does not have a working plasma sensor, so scientists needed a different way to measure the spacecraft’s plasma environment to make a definitive determination of its location. A coronal mass ejection, or a massive burst of solar wind and magnetic fields, that erupted from the sun in March 2012 provided scientists the data they needed. When this unexpected gift from the sun 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 pitch of the oscillations helped scientists determine the density of the plasma. The particular oscillations meant the spacecraft was bathed in plasma more than 40 times denser than what they had encountered in the outer layer of the heliosphere. Density of this sort is to be expected in interstellar space.

Voyager 1 Enters Interstellar Space


This artist’s concept puts solar system distances in perspective. The scale bar is in astronomical units, with each set distance beyond 1 AU representing 10 times the previous distance. One AU is the distance from the sun to the Earth, which is about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers. Neptune, the most distant planet from the sun, is about 30 AU.
Informally, the term “solar system” is often used to mean the space out to the last planet. Scientific consensus, however, says the solar system goes out to the Oort Cloud, the source of the comets that swing by our sun on long time scales. Beyond the outer edge of the Oort Cloud, the gravity of other stars begins to dominate that of the sun.
The inner edge of the main part of the Oort Cloud could be as close as 1,000 AU from our sun. The outer edge is estimated to be around 100,000 AU.
NASA’s Voyager 1, humankind’s most distant spacecraft, is around 125 AU. Scientists believe it entered interstellar space, or the space between stars, on Aug. 25, 2012. Much of interstellar space is actually inside our solar system. It will take about 300 years for Voyager 1 to reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud and possibly about 30,000 years to fly beyond it.
Alpha Centauri is currently the closest star to our solar system. But, in 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will be closer to the star AC +79 3888 than to our own sun. AC +79 3888 is actually traveling faster toward Voyager 1 than the spacecraft is traveling toward it. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The plasma wave science team reviewed its data and found an earlier, fainter set of oscillations in October and November 2012. Through extrapolation of measured plasma densities from both events, the team determined Voyager 1 first entered interstellar space in August 2012.

“We literally jumped out of our seats when we saw these oscillations in our data — they showed us the spacecraft was in an entirely new region, comparable to what was expected in interstellar space, and totally different than in the solar bubble,” Gurnett said. “Clearly we had passed through the heliopause, which is the long-hypothesized boundary between the solar plasma and the interstellar plasma.”

The new plasma data suggested a timeframe consistent with abrupt, durable changes in the density of energetic particles that were first detected on August 25, 2012. The Voyager team generally accepts this date as the date of interstellar arrival. The charged particle and plasma changes were what would have been expected during a crossing of the heliopause.


Neil deGrasse Tyson, Wil Wheaton, Carl Sagan’s son and others share messages to the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

“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,” said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “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.”

Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, were launched 16 days apart in 1977. Both spacecraft flew by Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 also flew by Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 2, launched before Voyager 1, is the longest continuously operated spacecraft. It is about 9.5 billion miles (15 billion kilometers) away from our sun.

Voyager mission controllers still talk to or receive data from Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 every day, though the emitted signals are currently very dim, at about 23 watts — the power of a refrigerator light bulb. By the time the signals get to Earth, they are a fraction of a billion-billionth of a watt. Data from Voyager 1’s instruments are transmitted to Earth typically at 160 bits per second, and captured by 34- and 70-meter NASA Deep Space Network stations. Traveling at the speed of light, a signal from Voyager 1 takes about 17 hours to travel to Earth. After the data are transmitted to JPL and processed by the science teams, Voyager data are made publicly available.

“Voyager has boldly gone where no probe has gone before, marking one of the most significant technological achievements in the annals of the history of science, and adding a new chapter in human scientific dreams and endeavors,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington. “Perhaps some future deep space explorers will catch up with Voyager, our first interstellar envoy, and reflect on how this intrepid spacecraft helped enable their journey.”

Scientists do not know when Voyager 1 will reach the undisturbed part of interstellar space where there is no influence from our sun. They also are not certain when Voyager 2 is expected to cross into interstellar space, but they believe it is not very far behind.

JPL built and operates the twin Voyager spacecraft. The Voyagers Interstellar Mission is a part of NASA’s Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NASA’s Deep Space Network, managed by JPL, is an international network of antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions and radio and radar astronomy observations for the exploration of the solar system and the universe. The network also supports selected Earth-orbiting missions.

The cost of the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 missions — including launch, mission operations and the spacecraft’s nuclear batteries, which were provided by the Department of Energy — is about $988 million through September.

For a sound file of the oscillations detected by Voyager in interstellar space, animations and other information, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/voyager and http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/interstellarvoyager/ .

For an image of the radio signal from Voyager 1 on Feb. 21 by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Long Baseline Array, which links telescopes from Hawaii to St. Croix, visit: http://www.nrao.edu .

Publication: D. A. Gurnett, et al., “In Situ Observations of Interstellar Plasma With Voyager 1,” Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1126/science.1241681

Source: Jia-Rui C. Cook/D.C. Agle, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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