Sunday, June 17, 2012

Voyager 1 Going Interstellar Soon?

The above image is an artist concept of the the general locations of NASA's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft. The two are shown passing through the heliosheath, the last area of our solar system before reaching interstellar space. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyager 1 may soon be "out of here," as far as our solar system is concerned. NASA engineers report that data from the spacecraft indicate this venerable deep-space explorer has encountered a region in space where the intensity of charged particles from beyond our solar system has markedly increased. Voyager scientists looking at this rapid rise draw closer to an inevitable but historic conclusion: humanity's first emissary to interstellar space is on the edge of our solar system.
Mission team members knew Voyager would someday become the first human-made interstellar spacecraft, but they were not certain when that would happen. Now, they think the latest data indicate they are in a new region where things are changing more quickly and this could be it.

The data making the 16-hour-38 minute, 11.1-billion-mile (17.8-billion-kilometer), journey from Voyager 1 to antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network on Earth detail the number of charged particles measured by the two High Energy telescopes aboard the 34-year-old spacecraft. These energetic particles were generated when stars in our cosmic neighborhood went supernova.

From January 2009 to January 2012, Voyager 1 received a gradual increase in galactic cosmic rays of about. More recently, that rate has been climbing Beginning on May 7, the rate increased five percent in one week and nine percent in one month.

This marked increase is one of a triad of data sets which need to make significant swings of the needle to indicate a new era in space exploration. The second important measure from the spacecraft's two telescopes is the intensity of energetic particles generated inside the heliosphere, the bubble of charged particles our sun blows around itself. While there has been a slow decline in the measurements of these energetic particles, they have not dropped off precipitously, which could be expected when Voyager breaks through the solar boundary.

The final data set that Voyager scientists believe will reveal a major change is the measurement in the direction of the magnetic field lines surrounding the spacecraft. While Voyager is still within the heliosphere, these field lines run east-west. When it passes into interstellar space, the team expects Voyager will find that the magnetic field lines orient in a more north-south direction. Such analysis will take weeks, and the Voyager team is currently crunching the numbers of its latest data set.

Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 and 2 are in good health. Voyager 2 is more than 9.1 billion miles (14.7 billion kilometers) away from the sun. Both are operating as part of the Voyager Interstellar Mission, an extended mission to explore the solar system outside the neighborhood of the outer planets and beyond. NASA's Voyagers are the two most distant active representatives of humanity and its desire to explore.

And now, the mission particulars...

The Voyager spacecraft were built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which continues to operate both. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington. For more information about the Voyager spacecraft, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/voyager .

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