Something we built here on Earth has gone interstellar.
Researchers announced this week that the Voyager 1 space probe launched by NASA on Sept. 5, 1977 has officially exited the solar system after more than 35 years and 11 billion miles of traveling.
Last year Voyager encountered a previously undiscovered "magnetic highway" that researchers suspected could be a kind of "exit ramp" to the solar system, and now it seems that the craft is no longer in the heliosphere, meaning it is no longer in contact with the solar winds generated by our sun. Now researchers are detecting much more intense cosmic rays from interstallar space.
The announcement was made Wednesday in a press release from the American Geophysical Union:
“Within just a few days, the heliospheric intensity of trapped radiation decreased, and the cosmic ray intensity went up as you would expect if it exited the heliosphere,” said Bill Webber, professor emeritus of astronomy at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. He calls this transition boundary the “heliocliff.”
So it looks like we've finally left the solar system, but Webber cautions that while it seems the heliosphere has been exited, the area Voyager 1 is in now may not actually be interstellar space proper, but rather a previously undiscovered area.
“It’s outside the normal heliosphere, I would say that,” Webber said. “We’re in a new region. And everything we’re measuring is different and exciting.”
Voyager 1 has been the farthest-traveling man-made object in space ever since it passed the Pioneer 10 probe in 1998. Its sister ship, Voyager 2, is still 2 billion miles behind it, but could also exit the heliosphere in a few years (Pioneer crafts 10 and 11 are also out there somewhere, but communication has long since been lost with them).
It's a big day for space exploration, as well as a big day for people who hope to someday live out of the plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.