Written by City News Service
Thirty-six years after it was launched, the spacecraft Voyager 1 has flown outside our solar system, becoming the first human-made object to reach interstellar space, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA officials announced today.
The spacecraft, built and operated by JPL, is roughly 12 billion miles from the sun and spent the past year journeying through ionized gas found in the space between stars. The craft is now outside the "solar bubble," although some effects of the sun are still evident, scientists said.
"Now that we have new, key data, we believe this is mankind's historic leap into interstellar space," according to Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at Caltech. "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."
The craft reached the outer limits of the solar system in 2004, and project managers have been monitoring the craft for signs that it had reached interstellar space. That evidence finally came in April, when a burst of solar wind and magnetic fields that erupted from the sun 13 months earlier reached Voyager, NASA officials said. The craft's plasma wave sensor detected the movement, allowing scientists to measure the density of plasma surrounding it, helping them pinpoint the craft's location as interstellar space.
According to JPL, project managers determined that the craft actually reached interstellar space on Aug. 25, 2012.
"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," according to Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at JPL. "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, while Voyager 2 also flew by Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 2 is about 9.5 billion miles and is the longest continuously operated spacecraft -- having been launched before Voyager 1.
Invoking a line from "Star Trek," NASA's associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld said Voyager 1 "has boldly gone where no probe has gone before." He called the craft's voyage "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."