A different perspective can do wonders. Perceiving things from a different angle can both metaphorically and literally allow people to see things differently. And in space, there are an almost infinite number of angles that objects can be observed from. Like all perspectives, some are more informative than others. Sometimes those informative perspectives are also the hardest to reach.
Voyager’s two probes did an excellent job in allowing humanity to access some difficult new perspectives simply given their distance from the Earth. But now a team of over 500 scientists and volunteers is urging NASA to go even further to find a better perspective by sending a satellite to a distance 1000 times the distance from the Sun to the Earth – almost 10 times how far the Voyagers have traveled in over 35 years.
We know they form from massive structures called molecular clouds, which themselves form from the Interstellar Medium (ISM). But how and why do certain types of stars form? Why, in some situations, does a star like our Sun form, versus a red dwarf or a blue giant?
That’s one of the central questions in astronomy. It’s also a very complex one.
There’s an unusual paradox hampering research into parts of the Milky Way. Dense gas blocks observations of the galactic core, and it can be difficult to observe in visible light from our vantage point. But distant galaxies don’t always present the same obstacles. So in some ways, we can observe distant galaxies better than we can observe our own.
In order to gain a better understanding of the Galactic Center (GC) and the Interstellar Medium (ISM), a team of astronomers used a telescope called the Wisconsin H-Alpha Mapper (WHAM) to look into the core of the Milky Way in part of the optical light spectrum.
Only two of humanity’s spacecraft have left the Solar System: NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Voyager 1 left the heliosphere behind in 2012, while Voyager 2 did the same on Nov. 5th, 2018. Now Voyager 2 has been in interstellar space for one year, and five new papers are presenting the scientific results from that one year.
Scientists working with the Hubble Space Telescope have found a very complex molecule out there in space. Called Buckyballs, after renowned thinker Buckminster Fuller, they are a molecular arrangement of 60 carbon atoms (C60) in the rough shape of a soccer ball. Though it’s not the first time these exotic molecules have been spotted in space, it is the first time that Buckyball ions have been found.
During the early 1990s, NASA’sPioneer 10 and 11 probes became the first robotic missions to venture beyond Neptune. In 2012 and 2018, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions went even farther by crossing the heliopause and entering interstellar space. Eventually, these probes may reach another star system, where their special cargo (the Pioneer Plaques and the Golden Records) could find their way into the hands of another species.
Which raises an important question: where might these spacecraft eventually wander? To address this, Coryn Bailer-Jones of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and Davide Farnocchia of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently conducted a study that examined which star systems the Voyager and Pioneer probes will likely encounter as they drift through the Milky Way over the next few million years…
The number of confirmed extra-solar planets has increased by leaps and bounds in recent years. With every new discovery, the question of when we might be able to explore these planets directly naturally arises. There have been several suggestions so far, ranging from laser-sail driven nanocraft that would travel to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years (Breakthrough Starshot) to slower-moving microcraft equipped with a gene laboratories (The Genesis Project).
But when it comes to braking these craft so that they can slow down and study distant stars and orbit planets, things become a bit more complicated. According to a recent study by the very man who conceived of The Genesis Project – Professor Claudius Gros of the Institute for Theoretical Physics Goethe University Frankfurt – special sails that rely on superconductors to generate magnetic fields could be used for just this purpose.
Starshot and Genesis are similar in that both concepts seek to leverage recent advancements in miniaturization. Today, engineers are able to create sensors, thrusters and cameras that are capable of carrying out computations and other functions, but are a fraction of the size of older instruments. And when it comes to propulsion, there are many options, ranging from conventional rockets and ion drives to laser-driven light sails.
Slowing an interstellar mission down, however, has remained a more significant challenge because such a craft cannot be fitted with braking thrusters and fuel without increasing its weight. To address this, Professor Gros suggests using magnetic sails, which would present numerous advantages over other available methods. As Prof. Gros explained to Universe Today via email:
“Classically, you would equip the spacecraft with rocket engines. Normal rocket engines, as we are using them for launching satellites, can change the velocity only by 5-15 km/s. And even that only when using several stages. That is not enough to slow down a craft flying at 1000 km/s (0.3% c) or 100000 km/s (c/3). Fusion or antimatter drives would help a bit, but not substantially.”
The sail he envisions would consist of a massive superconducting loop that measures about 50 kilometers in diameter, which would create a magnetic field once a lossless current was induced. Once activated, the ionized hydrogen in the interstellar medium would be reflected off the sail’s magnetic field. This would have the effect of transferring the spacecraft’s momentum to the interstellar gas, gradually slowing it down.
According to Gros’ calculations, this would work for slow-travelling sails despite the extremely low particle density of interstellar space, which works out to 0.005 to 0.1 particles per cubic centimeter. “A magnetic sail trades energy consumption with time,” said Gros.”If you turn off the engine of your car and let it roll idle, it will slow down due to friction (air, tires). The magnetic sail does the same, where the friction comes from the interstellar gas.”
One of the advantages of this method is the fact that can be built using existing technology. The key technology behind the magnetic sail is a Biot Savart loop which, when paired with the same kind of superconducting coils used in high-energy physics, would create a powerful magnetic field. Using such a sail, even heavier spacecraft – those that weight up to 1,500 kilograms (1.5 metric tonnes; 3,307 lbs) – could be decelerated from an interstellar voyage.
The one big drawback is the time such a mission would take. Based on Gros’ own calculations, a high speed transit to Proxima Centauri that relied on magnetic momentum braking would require a ship that weighed about 1 million kg (1000 metric tonnes; 1102 tons). However, an interstellar mission involving a 1.5 metric tonne ship would be able to reach TRAPPIST-1 in about 12,000 years. As Gros concludes:
“It takes a long time (because the very low density of the interstellar media). That is bad if you want to see a return (scientific data, exciting pictures) in your lifetime. Magnetic sails work, but only when you are happy to take the (very) long perspective.”
In other words, such a system would not work for a nanocraft like that envisioned by Breakthrough Starshot. As Starshot’s own Dr. Abraham Loeb explained, the main goal of the project is to achieve the dream of interstellar travel within a generation of the ship’s departure. In addition to being the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, Dr. Loeb is also the Chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee.
As he explained to Universe Today via email:
“[Gros] concludes that breaking on the interstellar gas is feasible only at low speeds (less than a fraction of a percent of the speed of light) and even then one needs a sail that is tens of miles wide, weighting tons. The problem is that with such a low speed, the journey to the nearest stars will take over a thousand years.
“The Breakthrough Starshot initiative aims to launch a spacecraft at a fifth of the speed of light so that it will reach the nearest stars within a human lifetime. It is difficult to get people excited about a journey whose completion will not be witnessed by them. But there is a caveat. If the longevity of people could be extended to millennia by genetic engineering, then designs of the type considered by Gros would certainly be more appealing.”
But for missions like The Genesis Project, which Gros originally proposed in 2016, time is not a factor. Such a probe, which would carry single-celled organisms – either encoded in a gene factory or stored as cryogenically-frozen spores – a could take thousands of years to reach a neighboring star system. Once there, it would begin seeding planets that had been identified as “transiently habitable” with single-celled organisms.
For such a mission, travel time is not the all-important factor. What matters is the ability to slow down and establish orbit around a planet. That way, the spacecraft would be able to seed these nearby worlds with terrestrial organisms, which could have the effect of slowly terraforming it in advance of human explorers or settlers.
Given how long it would take for humans to reach even the nearest extra-solar planets, a mission that last a few hundred or a few thousand years is no big deal. In the end, which method we choose to conduct interstellar mission will come down to how much time we’re willing to invest. For the sake of exploration, expedience is the key factor, which means lightweight craft and incredibly high speeds.
But where long-term goals – such as seeding other worlds with life and even terraforming them for human settlement – are concerned, the slow and steady approach is best. One thing is for sure: when these types of missions move from the concept stage to realization, it sure will be exciting to witness!
Forty years ago, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions began their journey from Earth to become the farthest-reaching missions in history. In the course of their missions, the two probes spent the next two decades sailing past the gas giants of Jupiter and Saturn. And while Voyager 1 then ventured into the outer Solar System, Voyager 2 swung by Uranus and Neptune, becoming the first and only probe in history to explore these worlds.
This summer, the probes will be marking the fortieth anniversary of their launch – on September 5th and August 20th, respectively. Despite having traveled for so long and reaching such considerable distances from Earth, the probes are still in contact with NASA and sending back valuable data. So in addition to being the most distant missions from Earth, they are the longest-running mission in history.
In addition to their distance and longevity, the Voyager spacecraft have also set numerous other records for robotic space missions. For example, in 2012, the Voyager 1 probe became the first and only spacecraft to have entered interstellar space. Voyage 2, meanwhile, is the only probe that has explored all four of the Solar System’s gas/ice giants – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
Their discoveries also include the first active volcanoes beyond Earth – on Jupiter’s moon Io – the first evidence of a possible subsurface ocean on Europa, the dense atmosphere around Titan (the only body beyond Earth with a dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere), the craggy surface of Uranus’ “Frankenstein Moon” Miranda, and the ice plume geysers of Neptune’s largest moon, Triton.
These accomplishments have had immeasurable benefits for planetary science, astronomy and space exploration. They’ve also paved the way for future missions, such as the Galileo and Juno probes, the Cassini-Huygens mission, and the New Horizons spacecraft. As Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), said in a recent press statement:
“I believe that few missions can ever match the achievements of the Voyager spacecraft during their four decades of exploration. They have educated us to the unknown wonders of the universe and truly inspired humanity to continue to explore our solar system and beyond.”
But what is perhaps most memorable about the Voyager missions is the special cargo they carry. Each spacecraft carries what is known as the Golden Record, a collection of sounds, pictures and messages that tell of Earth, human history and culture. These records were intended to serve as a sort of time capsule and/or message to any civilizations that retrieved them, should they ever be recovered.
As noted, both ships are still in contact with NASA and sending back mission data. The Voyager 1 probe, as of the writing of this article, is about 20.9 billion km (13 billion mi; 140 AU) from Earth. As it travels northward out of the plane of the planets and into interstellar space, the probe continues to send back information about cosmic rays – which are about four times as abundant in interstellar space than around Earth.
From this, researchers have learned that the heliosphere – the region that contains the Solar System’s planets and solar wind – acts as a sort of radiation shield. Much in the say that Earth’s magnetic field protects us from solar wind (which would otherwise strip away our atmosphere), the heliopause protects the Solar planets from atomic nuclei that travel at close to the speed of light.
Voyager 2, meanwhile, is currently about 17.7 billion km (11 billion mi; 114.3 AU) from Earth. It is traveling south out of the plane of the planets, and is expected to enter interstellar space in a few years. And much like Voyager 1, it is also studying how the heliosphere interacts with the surroundings interstellar medium, using a suite of instruments that measure charged particles, magnetic fields, radio waves and solar wind plasma.
Once Voyager 2 crosses into interstellar space, both probes will be able to sample the medium from two different locations simultaneously. This is expected to tell us much about the magnetic environment that encapsulates our system, and will perhaps teach us more about the history and formation of the Solar System. On top of that, it will let us know what kinds of hazards a possible interstellar mission will have to contend with.
The fact that the two probes are still active after all this time is nothing short of amazing. As Edward Stone – the David Morrisroe Professor of Physics at Caltech, the former VP and Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Voyager project scientist – said:
“None of us knew, when we launched 40 years ago, that anything would still be working, and continuing on this pioneering journey. The most exciting thing they find in the next five years is likely to be something that we didn’t know was out there to be discovered.”
Keeping the probes going has also been a challenge since the amount of power they generate decreases at a rate of about four watts per year. This has required that engineers learn how to operate the twin spacecraft with ever-decreasing amounts of power, which has forced them to consult documents that are decades old in order to understand the probes’ software and command functions.
Luckily, it has also given former NASA engineers who worked on the Voyager probes the opportunity to offer their experience and expertise. At present, the team that is operating the spacecraft estimate that the probes will run out of power by 2030. However, they will continue to drift along their trajectories long after they do so, traveling at a speed of 48,280 km per hour (30,000 mph) and covering a single AU every 126 days.
At this rate, they will be within spitting distance of the nearest star in about 40,000 years, and will have completed an orbit of the Milky Way within 225 million years. So its entirely possible that someday, the Golden Records will find their way to a species capable of understanding what they represent. Then again, they might find their way back to Earth someday, informing our distant, distant relatives about life in the 20th century.
And if the craft avoid any catastrophic collisions and can survive in the interstellar medium of space, it is likely that they will continue to be emissaries for humanity long after humanity is dead. It’s good to leave something behind!
The twin Voyager spacecraft are now making their way through the interstellar medium. Even though they are going where none have gone before, the path ahead it is not completely unknown.
Astronomers are using the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the ‘road’ ahead for these pioneering spacecraft, to ascertain what various materials may lay along the Voyagers’ paths through space.
Combining Hubble data with the information the Voyagers are able to gather and send back to Earth, astronomers said a preliminary analysis reveals “a rich, complex interstellar ecology, containing multiple clouds of hydrogen laced with other elements.”
“This is a great opportunity to compare data from in situ measurements of the space environment by the Voyager spacecraft and telescopic measurements by Hubble,” said Seth Redfield of Wesleyan University, who led the study. “The Voyagers are sampling tiny regions as they plow through space at roughly 38,000 miles per hour. But we have no idea if these small areas are typical or rare. The Hubble observations give us a broader view because the telescope is looking along a longer and wider path. So Hubble gives context to what each Voyager is passing through.”
The combined data is also providing new insights into how our Sun travels through interstellar space, and astronomers hope that these combined observations will help them characterize the physical properties of the local interstellar medium.
“Ideally, synthesizing these insights with in situ measurements from Voyager would provide an unprecedented overview of the local interstellar environment,” said Hubble team member Julia Zachary of Wesleyan University.
The initial look at the clouds’ composition shows very small variations in the abundances of the chemical elements contained in the structures.
“These variations could mean the clouds formed in different ways, or from different areas, and then came together,” Redfield said.
Astronomers are also seeing that the region that we and our solar system are passing through right now contains “clumpier” material, which may affect the heliosphere, the large bubble that is produced by our Sun’s powerful solar wind. At its boundary, called the heliopause, the solar wind pushes outward against the interstellar medium. Hubble and Voyager 1 made measurements of the interstellar environment beyond this boundary, where the wind comes from stars other than our sun.
“I’m really intrigued by the interaction between stars and the interstellar environment,” Redfield said. “These kinds of interactions are happening around most stars, and it is a dynamic process.”
Both Voyagers 1 and 2 launched in 1977 and both explored Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 went on to visit Uranus and Neptune.
Voyager 1 is now 13 billion miles (20 billion km) from Earth, and entered interstellar space in 2012, the region between the stars that is filled with gas, dust, and material recycled from dying stars. It is the farthest a human-made spacecraft has even traveled. Next big ‘landmark’ for Voyager 2 is in about 40,000 years when it will come within 1.6 light-years of the star Gliese 445, in the constellation Camelopardalis.
Voyager 2, is 10.5 billion miles (16.9 billion km) from Earth, and will pass 1.7 light-years from the star Ross 248 in about 40,000 years.
Of course, neither spacecraft will be operational by then.
But scientists hope that for at least the next 10 years, the Voyagers will be making measurements of interstellar material, magnetic fields, and cosmic rays along their trajectories. The complimentary Hubble observations will help to map interstellar structure along the routes. Each sight line stretches several light-years to nearby stars. Sampling the light from those stars, Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph measured how interstellar material absorbed some of the starlight, leaving telltale spectral fingerprints.
When the Voyagers run out of power and are no longer able to communicate with Earth, astronomers still hope to use observations from Hubble and subsequent space telescopes to characterize the environment where our robotic emissaries to the cosmos will travel.
If we could board the starship Enterprise-D and were able to look through Giordi LaForge’s visor we might be able to see the interstellar medium – the ‘stuff’ between the stars — as wispy clouds of oxygen, hydrogen, helium and neon. Instead, since we are back in the 21st century, we have the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) spacecraft, which has now made the first–ever direct observations of neutral hydrogen and oxygen atoms drifting into our solar system from the region outside our heliosphere. Surprisingly, this material is more ‘alien’ than scientists were expecting, as the matter in the galactic wind doesn’t contain the same exact material as what our solar system is made of.
The most important finding is there is less oxygen ‘out there.’ For every 20 neon atoms in the galactic wind, there are 74 oxygen atoms. In our own solar system, however, for every 20 neon atoms there are 111 oxygen atoms. That translates to more oxygen in any given region of the solar system than in the local interstellar space.
“Our solar system is different than the space right outside it and that suggests two possibilities,” said David McComas the principal investigator for IBEX. “Either the solar system evolved in a separate, more oxygen-rich part of the galaxy than where we currently reside or a great deal of critical, life-giving oxygen lies trapped in interstellar dust grains or ices, unable to move freely throughout space.”
Either way, the scientists said, this affects scientific models of how our solar system – and life – formed. And more than just helping to determine the distribution of elements in the interstellar medium, these new measurements provide clues about how and where our solar system formed, the forces that physically shape our solar system, and even the history of other stars in the Milky Way.
“This alien interstellar material is really the stuff that stars and planets and people are made of — and it’s very important to be measuring it directly,” McComas said during a press briefing on Tuesday.
If Spock were a member of this mission, he would probably raise an eyebrow and say, “Fascinating.”*
Interstellar clouds hold the elements of exploded supernovae, which are dispersed throughout the galaxy. As the interstellar wind blows these charged and neutral particles through the Milky Way, the spacecraft can measure samples that make it into our solar system. IBEX scans the entire sky once a year, and every February, its instruments point in the correct direction to intercept incoming neutral atoms. IBEX counted those atoms in 2009 and 2010 and has now captured the best and most complete glimpse of the material that lies so far outside our own system.
In addition to sampling the raw “star stuff,” the findings are important because the interstellar gas surrounding us can affect the strength of the Sun’s heliosphere – the area of influence by the Sun, and like a shielding bubble, protects us from dangerous galactic cosmic rays, the majority of which would come into the inner solar system if not for this bubble.
IBEX also discovered that the interstellar wind is approximately 7,000 miles per hour slower than previously thought. This indicates that our solar system is still in what’s referred to as the “local interstellar cloud.” However, the scientists noted that we will transition into a different region at any time within a few thousand years (very short on astronomical time scales) where conditions will change and affect the heliosphere’s protective capability. And no one knows if that change will be for the better or worse.
As our solar system travels around the Milky Way through the vast sweep of cosmic time, the ever-changing nature of the heliosphere has likely had implications on the evolution of life on Earth as varying levels of radiation spurred genetic mutations and, perhaps, wholesale extinctions.
“This is all very exciting, and it has important implications as the Sun moves through space and in and out of interstellar clouds , the flux of galactic cosmic rays varies,” said Priscilla Frisch, senior scientist, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, and part of the IBEX mission. “And that is recorded in the geo-isotopic records. Someday maybe we can link the Sun’s motion through interstellar clouds with geological records on Earth, and trace the geological history of Earth.”
Additionally, while the new findings provide a greater understanding of our heliosphere, it will also aid scientists in exploring analogous structures called “astrospheres,” surrounding other stars throughout the galaxy.
“We know at least two cases of another star with a planetary system and an astrosphere around it, and these are the true analogs to our own solar system,” said Seth Redfield, assistant professor, Astronomy Department, Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut, also speaking at the press briefing. “The discovery of other planets coupled with our understanding of the impact these galactic cosmic rays could potentially have on planets and the emergence and evolution of life. These are connections that we haven’t explored fully, and with these new findings from IBEX, are now coming together to a very interesting topic to explore.”
IBEX is a small spacecraft, roughly the size of a card table, and is one of NASA’s low-cost missions. It is in Earth orbit, but can observe the edges of the solar system with detectors that “look” outward and collect particles called energetic neutral atoms. With data from IBEX, scientists are creating the first map of the boundary of our solar system.
These latest findings from IBEX were presented in a series of science papers appearing in the Astrophysics Journal on January 31, 2012.
“This set of papers provide many of the first direct measurements of the interstellar medium around us,” says McComas. “We’ve been trying to understand our galaxy for a long time, and with all of these observations together, we are taking a major step forward in knowing what the local part of the galaxy is like.”