What Does a Supernova Sounds Like?

We’ve all been ruined by science fiction, with their sound effects in space. But if you could watch a supernova detonate from a safe distance away, what would you hear?

Grab your pedantry tinfoil helmet and say the following in your best “Comic Book Guy” voice: “Don’t be ridiculous. Space does not have sound effects. You would not hear the Death Star exploding. That is wrong.” There are no sounds in space. You know that. Why did you even click on this?

Wait! I still have thing I want to teach you. Keep that tinfoil on and stick around. First, a quick review. Why are there sounds? What are these things we detect with our ear shell-flaps which adorn the sides of our hat-resting orb?

Sounds are pressure waves moving through a medium, like air, water or beer. Talking, explosions, and music push air molecules into other molecules. Through all that “stuff” pushing other “stuff” it eventually pushes the “stuff” that we call our eardrum, and that lets us hear a thing. So, much like how there’s not enough “stuff” in space to take a temperature reading. There’s not enough “stuff” in space to be considered a medium for sound to move through.

Don’t get me wrong there’s “stuff” there. There’s particles. Even in intergalactic depths there are a few hundred particles every cubic meter, and there’s much more in a galaxy. They’re so far apart though, the particles don’t immediately collide with each other allowing a sound wave to pass through a grouping of them.

So, even if you did watch the Death Star explode, you couldn’t hear it. This includes zapping lasers, and exploding rockets. Unless two astronauts touched helmets together, then they could talk. The sound pressure moves through the air molecules in one helmet, through the glass transferring from one helmet to the other, and then pushes against the air inside the helmet of the listening astronaut. Then they could talk, or possibly hear one another scream, or just make muffled noises under the face-hugger that had been hiding in their boot.

There’s no sound in space, so you can’t hear what a supernova sounds like. But if you’re willing to consider swapping out your listening meats for other more impressive cybernetic components, there are possibilities. Perhaps I could offer you something in a plasma detection instrument, and you could hear the Sun.

Artist's concept of NASA's Voyager spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyager 1 detects waves of particles streaming from the Sun’s solar wind. It was able to hear when it left the heliosphere, the region where the Sun’s solar wind buffets against the interstellar medium.

Or you could try something in the Marconi Auralnator 2000 which is the latest in radio detector implants I just made up. If there was such a thing, you could hear the plasma waves in Earth’s radiation belts. Which would be pretty amazing, but perhaps somewhat impractical for other lifestyle purposes such as watching Ellen.

So, if you wanted to hear a supernova you’d need a different kind of ear. In fact, something that’s not really an ear at all. There are some exceptions out there. With dense clouds of gas and dust at the heart of a galaxy cluster, you could have a proper medium. NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory has detected sound waves moving through these dust clouds. But you would need ears millions of billions of times more sensitive to hear them.

NASA and other space agencies work tirelessly to convert radio, plasma and other activity into a sound pressure format that we can actually hear. There are beautiful things happening space. I’ve included a few links below which will take you to a few of these, and they are really quite incredible.

Earthsong

Lightning on Saturn, Helium in the atmosphere, etc.

Stunning Amateur Timelapse of Jupiter ‘Re-enacts’ Voyager Flyby

Back in the 1970’s when NASA launched the two Voyager spacecraft to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, I remember being mesmerized by a movie created from Voyager 1 images of the movement of the clouds in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Voyager 1 began taking pictures of Jupiter as it approached the planet in January 1979 and completed its Jupiter encounter in early April. During that time it took almost 19,000 pictures and many other scientific measurements to create the short movie, which you can see below, showing the intricate movement of the bright band of clouds for the first time.

Now, 35 years later a group of seven Swedish amateur astronomers achieved their goal of replicating the Voyager 1 footage, not with another flyby but with images taken with their own ground-based telescopes.

“We started this joint project back in December of 2013 to redo the NASA Voyager 1 flyby of Jupiter,” amatuer astronomer Göran Strand told Universe Today. “During 90 days we captured 560 still images of Jupiter and turned them into 90 complete maps that covered the whole of Jupiter’s surface.”

Their newly released film, above details the work they did and the hurdles they overcame (including incredibly bad weather in Sweden this winter) to make their dream a reality. They called their project “Voyager 3.”

Animated gif of the 'Voyager 3' team re-enactment of the Voyager 1 flyby. Credit: Voyager 3 team, via Kristoffer Åberg.
Animated gif of the ‘Voyager 3’ team re-enactment of the Voyager 1 flyby. Credit: Voyager 3 team, via Kristoffer Åberg.
It is really an astonishing project and those of you who do image processing will appreciate the info in the video about the tools they used and how they did their processing to create this video.

The seven Swedish astronomers who participated in the Voyager 3 project are (from left to right in the photo below) Daniel Sundström, Torbjörn Holmqvist, Peter Rosén (the project initiator), Göran Strand, Johan Warell and his daughter Noomi, Martin Högberg and Roger Utas.

The Swedish team of amateur astronomers who compiled the 'Voyager 3' project. Image courtesy Peter Rosén.
The Swedish team of amateur astronomers who compiled the ‘Voyager 3’ project. Image courtesy Peter Rosén.

Congrats to the team of Voyager 3!

You can read more about the Voyagers visits to Jupiter here from NASA.

Voyager3Movie from Peter Rosén on Vimeo.

How Would Earth Send Messages To A Starship — Or A Distant Civilization?

I have a new exercise routine where I watch Star Trek: The Next Generation most mornings of the week while doing my thing. Besides serving as awesome distraction, the episodes do get me thinking about how humans would talk to extraterrestrials. It likely wouldn’t be as easy as the show portrays to zoom across space to conduct diplomatic negotiations at the planet “Parliament”, for example, so interstellar communication would be a problem.

Luckily for non-engineers such as me, there are folks out there (on Earth, at least) that are examining the problem of talking between stars. David Messerschmitt, of the University of California at Berkeley, is one of those people. A new paper by him on Arxiv examines the issue. Note this is a preprint site and not a peer-reviewed journal, but all the same it provides an intriguing addition to how to communicate outside of Earth.

Messerschmitt explains that humans already communicate with probes that are a fair distance from Earth (say, Voyager 1 in interstellar space) at radio frequencies, and there is some usage now of laser/optical communications (namely between the Earth and the moon).

Across greater distances, however, you lose information, the interstellar medium gets in the way, and stars shift due to relative motion. Besides all that, at first you wouldn’t know how the other civilization designs its systems and you could therefore send a message that wouldn’t be picked up.

This sequence of images, showing a region where fewer stars are forming near the constellation of Perseus, illustrates how the structure and distribution of the interstellar medium can be distilled from the images obtained with Planck. Credit: ESA / HFI and LFI Consortia
This sequence of images, showing a region where fewer stars are forming near the constellation of Perseus, illustrates how the structure and distribution of the interstellar medium can be distilled from the images obtained with Planck. Credit: ESA / HFI and LFI Consortia

He further explains that starships and civilizations would have different communications requirements. Starship communication would be two-way and based on a similar design, so success comes by having high “uplink and downlink transmit times”. The more information, the better it would be for scientific observations and keeping down errors.

Civilization-to-civilization chats, however, would present headaches. As with all diplomatic negotiations, crafting suitable messages would take time. Then we’d have to send the message out repeatedly to make sure it is heard (which actually means that reliability is not as big of a problem.) Then the ISM would have to be contended with (something that pulsar astronomers and astrophysicists are already working on, he said).

In either case — talking to starships or other civilizations — one can assume there’d be a lot of energy involved, he added. “Starships are likely to be much closer than the nearest civilizations, but the cost of either a large transmit antenna or transmit energy is likely to be considerably greater for the starship than for a terrestrial-based transmitter,” he said, suggesting that a solution would be to minimize the energy delivered to the receiver. Other civilizations may have found more efficient ways to overcome this problem, he added.

You can read more details of the research on Arxiv, where Messerschmitt talks about Gaussian noise, channel coding and other parameters to keep in mind during communication.

Weekly Space Hangout – September 13, 2013: Voyager is Out, LADEE Launches (a Frog), Asteroid 324 Bamberga

Once again, we have gathered together the forces of space journalism to report on the big news stories of the week. And there were lots of big stories indeed, with the launch of NASA’s LADEE mission to the Moon, and the awesome fact that Voyager 1 has totally left the Solar System.

Host: Fraser Cain

Journalists: Amy Shira Teitel, Nicole Gugliucci, Matthew Francis, David Dickinson, Nancy Atkinson

Frog Launches with LADEE
LADEE Launch Trajectory
Asteroid 334’s Close Approach
Voyager Has Left the Heliosphere
New Comet Lovejoy Discovered
Lots of Globular Clusters

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12 pm Pacific / 3 pm Eastern as a live Google+ Hangout on Air. You can watch the show from right here on Universe Today, or on our YouTube channel.

10 Historic Moments in Voyager’s Journey to Interstellar Space

Yesterday, NASA announced that as of August 2012, Voyager 1 is in a new frontier to humanity: interstellar space. Our most distant spacecraft is now in a region where the plasma (really hot gas) environment comes more from between the stars than from the sun itself. (There’s still debate as to whether it’s in or out of the solar system, as this article explains.)

The plucky spacecraft is close to 12 billion miles (19 million kilometers) from home, and in its 36 years of voyaging has taught us a lot about the planets, their moons and other parts of space. Here are 10 of some of its most historic moments. Did we miss any? Let us know in the comments.

10. The launch: Aug. 20, 1977

Voyager 1 launches from the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 5, 1977. Credit: NASA
Voyager 1 launches from the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 5, 1977. Credit: NASA

Voyager 1 blasted off from Cape Canaveral on Sept. 5, 1977. Its twin, Voyager 2, departed Earth 16 days earlier. Each spacecraft carried various scientific instruments on board as well as a “Golden Record” that had sounds of Earth on it, as well as a diagram showing where Earth is in the universe.

9. Capturing the Earth and Moon together for the first time

On Sept. 18, 1977, Voyager 1 took three images of the Earth and Moon that were combined into this one image. The moon is artificially brightened to make it show up better. Credit: NASA
On Sept. 18, 1977, Voyager 1 took three images of the Earth and Moon that were combined into this one image. The moon is artificially brightened to make it show up better. Credit: NASA

About two weeks after launching, Voyager 1 turned back towards Earth and took three images, which were combined into this single view of the Earth and Moon together in space. This was the first time both bodies were pictured together, NASA said.

8. The ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image

Voyager 1 pale blue dot. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Voyager 1 pale blue dot. Image credit: NASA/JPL

On February 14, 1990, Voyager 1 was about 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) away from Earth. Scientists commanded the spacecraft to turn its face towards the solar system and snap some pictures of the planets. Among them was this famous image of Earth, which astronomer Carl Sagan called the Pale Blue Dot. “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us,” wrote Sagan in his 1997 book of the same name. In 2013, the spacecraft Cassini also took a picture of Earth, and NASA encouraged everyone to wave back.

7. Finding moons “shepherding” Saturn’s F ring

Prometheus, a small potato-shaped moon of Saturn, shown in this Voyager 1 picture interacting with the planet's F ring. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
Prometheus, a small potato-shaped moon of Saturn, shown in this Voyager 1 picture interacting with the planet’s F ring. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Voyager 1 spotted Prometheus and Pandora, two moons of Saturn that keep the F ring separate from the rest of the debris, as well as Atlas, which “shepherds” the A ring. More recently, astronomers have found even more interesting things in Saturn’s rings — such as rain.

6. Spotting what appeared to be a LOT of water ice on Saturn’s moons

Encaladus, a moon of Saturn, as shown in this Voyager 1 image. Credit: NASA
Encaladus, a moon of Saturn, as shown in this Voyager 1 image. Credit: NASA

After many years of seeing Saturn’s moons as mere points of light, Voyager 1 buzzed several of them in its quick flyby through the system: Dione, Enceladus, Mimas, Rhea, Tethys and Titan among them. Many of these moons appeared to be icy, which was a surprising find since astronomers previously thought water was pretty rare in the Solar System. We know better now.

5. Imaging Titan’s orange haze

Saturn's moon Titan lies under a thick blanket of orange haze in this Voyager 1 picture. Credit: NASA
Saturn’s moon Titan lies under a thick blanket of orange haze in this Voyager 1 picture. Credit: NASA

Voyager 1 pictures such as this tortured astronomers for decades — what lies beneath this mysterious haze surrounding Titan, Saturn’s moon? That mystery, in fact, inspired the European Space Agency to send a lander to the moon, called Huygens, which successfully reached the surface in 2005.

4. Finding active volcanoes on Io

Io's blotchy volcanoes are clearly visible in this image from Voyager 1. Credit: NASA
Io’s blotchy volcanoes are clearly visible in this image from Voyager 1. Credit: NASA

Voyager 1 helped show us that the Solar System is full of very interesting moons. At Io — a moon of Jupiter — it turns out the moon flexes during its 42-hour orbit of massive Jupiter, which powers a lot of volcanic activity.

3. Voyager 1 becomes the most distant human object

A 2013 snapshot riding along with Voyager 1's looking back at the Sun and inner solar system. The positions of Voyager 2 and Pioneers 10 and 11 show within the viewport as well.
A 2013 computer-generated snapshot riding along with Voyager 1’s looking back at the Sun and inner solar system. The positions of Voyager 2 and Pioneers 10 and 11 show within the viewport as well.

On Feb. 17, 1998, Voyager 1’s distance surpassed that of another long-flying probe, Pioneer 10. This made Voyager 1 the farthest-flung human object in space.

2. Riding the “magnetic highway”

Artist concept of NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft exploring a new region in our solar system called the “magnetic highway.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist concept of NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft exploring a new region in our solar system called the “magnetic highway.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In December, NASA said Voyager 1 had reached an area (as of July 28, 2012) where high-energy magnetic particles were starting to bleed through the bubble of lower-energy particles from our sun. “Voyager’s discovered a new region of the heliosphere that we had not realized was there. It’s a magnetic highway where the magnetic field of the Sun is connected to the outside. So it’s like a highway, letting particles in and out,” said project scientist Ed Stone at the time. After that point, as more measurements were analyzed by different teams, there was a lot of debate as to whether Voyager had reached interstellar space.

1. Reaching interstellar space

This graphic shows the main evidence that Voyager 1 has reached interstellar space. The blue line shows particle density, which dropped as Voyager 1 moved away from the sun, and then jumped again after it crossed the "termination shock" that is where the sun's solar wind (particles streaming from the sun) slows down. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This graphic shows the main evidence that Voyager 1 has reached interstellar space. The blue line shows particle density, which dropped as Voyager 1 moved away from the sun, and then jumped again after it crossed the “termination shock” that is where the sun’s solar wind (particles streaming from the sun) slows down. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With Voyager 1 now known to be in interstellar space, we’re lucky enough to have a few years left to communicate with it before it runs out of power. All of the instruments will be turned off by 2025, and then engineering data will be available for about 10 years beyond that. The silent emissary from humanity will then come within 1.7 light years of an obscure star in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) called AC+79 3888 in the year 40,272 AD and then orbit the center of the Milky Way for millions of years.

Astro Poetry: The First Starship

Our favorite astro-poet, Stuart Atkinson, has written a wonderful ode to Voyager 1 in commemoration of the spacecraft reaching interstellar space. Stu has a knack for turning science into poetry!

The First Starship

I needed no nacelles to push me onwards;
No dilithium crystals crackled in my heart.
Yet I have left Sol so far behind me she is
Just a star now, a golden spark in a salt grain sea,
And I can feel her gentle breath on my cheek
No more.

In my ears now the whalesong of the universe
Drowns out the sounds of distant, troubled Earth.
Oh, the blissful peace!
Out here all I can hear
Is the fabled music of the spheres.
Each trembling tone rolling under me,
Every mellow note washing over me
Was sung somewhere Out There.
Melodies ripped from ravenous black holes’ throats,
Screamed from the broken hearts of dying stars
Swirl around me, multi-wavelength whispers
In the dark and endless night.

My head is full of memories…
Skimming Titan’s marmalade-haze atmosphere;
My first sight of Jove’s great bloodshot eye,
Staring back at me, into me, as I flew by;
Earth as Pale Blue Dot, a Sagan sequin
Dancing in a sunbeam…

Ahead now – the solar system’s Barrier Reef.
Terra will whip around Sol 300 times before
I reach the Oort’s icy inner harbour wall
And tens of thousands of times more before
I finally leave port, sailing on in serene silence
For forty millennia more before I venture anywhere
Near another star…

And in ten million years, when Earth’s proud citadels
And cities have crumbled and whatever evolves
In their dust to take Mankind’s place
Stares out into space with curious, alien eyes,
I will still be flying through the stars.
Your legacy. Proof that once you dared to dream
Noble, Camelot dreams
And reached out, through me, to explore eternity.

(c) Stuart Atkinson Sept 13th 2013

Written to commemorate and celebrate the Sept 12, 2013 announcement that Voyager 1 had entered interstellar space.

Read more of Stu’s poetry at this Astropoetry website and his other musings at Cumbrian Sky.

Messages To Voyager: Welcome to Interstellar Space

On the Voyager spacecraft are the famous Voyager Golden Records, which send messages from planet Earth to … whatever or whoever may find it in the future. In celebration of Voyager 1 making it into interstellar space (read all the details here) a few friends put together a video to congratulate the spacecraft and the team. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Wil Wheaton, Carl Sagan’s son and others shared their messages to the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

Feel free to leave your message to Voyager in the (new and improved) comment section.

Fly Along With Voyager

Far away, deep in the dark, near the edge of interstellar space, Voyager 1 and 2 are hurtling near the tenuous edge of the magnetic bubble surrounding the Sun known as the heliosphere and NASA wants you to ride along.

The Voyager website sports a new feature showing cosmic ray data. NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System, a popular Web-based interactive tool, contains a new Voyager module, that not only lets you ride along for the Voyagers’ journeys but also shows important scientific data flowing from the spacecraft.

[Warning:Play with this tool at your own risk. Interacting with this online feature can seriously impact your time; in an educational way, of course!]

As Voyager 1 explores the outer limits of the heliosphere, where the breath from our Sun is just a whisper, scientists are looking for three key signs that the spacecraft has left our solar system and entered interstellar space, or the space between stars. Voyager 1 began heading for the outer Solar System after zipping through the Saturn system in 1980.

The new module contains three gauges, updated every six hours from real data from Voyager 1 and 2, that indicate the level of fast-moving particles, slower-moving particles and the direction of the magnetic field. Fast-moving charged particles, mainly protons, come from distant stars and originate from outside the heliosphere. Slower-moving particles, also mainly protons, come from within the heliosphere. Scientists are looking for the levels of outside particles to jump dramatically while inside particles dip. If these levels hold steady, it means the Voyager spacecraft no longer feel the wind from our Sun and the gulf between stars awaits.

Over the past couple of years, data from Voyager 1, the most distant man-made object, show a steady increase of high-powered cosmic radiation indicating the edge is near, scientists say. Voyager 1 appears to have reached the last region before interstellar space. Scientists dubbed the region the “magnetic highway.” Particles from outside are streaming in while particles from inside are streaming out. Voyager 2’s instruments detect slight drops in inside particles but scientists don’t think the probe has entered the area yet.

Scientists also expect a change in the direction of the magnetic field. While particle data is updated every six hours, analyses of the magnetic field data usually takes a few months to prepare.

A snapshot riding along with Voyager 1's looking back at the Sun and inner solar system. The positions of Voyager 2 and Pioneers 10 and 11 show within the viewport as well.
A snapshot riding along with Voyager 1’s looking back at the Sun and inner solar system. The positions of Voyager 2 and Pioneers 10 and 11 show within the viewport as well.

Although launched first, Voyager 2 lags behind its twin Voyager 1 by more than 20 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Voyager 2 blasted off August 20, 1977 aboard a Titan-Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The nuclear-powered craft visited Jupiter and Saturn with an additional mission, called the Grand Tour, to study Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 1 launched two weeks later on September 5, 1977. With a faster flight path, Voyager 1 arrived at Jupiter four months before its sister craft. Voyager 1 went on to study Saturn before using the ringed planet’s gravity field to slingshot it up and out of the plane of the solar system toward the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer.

NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System allows viewers to hitch a ride with any of NASA’s spacecraft as they explore the solar system. Time can be slowed for a near approach of a moon or asteroid or sped up to coast between the planets. Watch close at just the right moment and you can witness one of the spacecrafts roll maneuvers. All spacecraft movements are based on actual spacecraft navigation data.

Check out the Voyager module here, and check out the rest of the the Solar System here at Eyes on the Solar System.

Scientists Say Voyager 1 Has Left the Solar System, But Has It Really?

A new paper out today reports that the Voyager 1 spacecraft appears to have traveled beyond the influence of the Sun and exited the heliosphere. However, the data they cite is the same as what NASA Voyager scientists claimed in December 2012 was just a new region at the edge of the solar system that scientists previously didn’t know was there. They called it a “highway” of magnetic particles, shepherding Voyager 1 out into interstellar space, whereas the new paper put out by the American Geophysical Union says Voyager 1 has crossed a “heliocliff” and into interstellar space.

JPL spokesperson Jia-Rui Cook had just heard of the paper when Universe Today called this morning to verify the findings of the new paper. “Our last statement about this was the critical thing we were looking for was a change in the magnetic field data,” she said via phone. “This paper does not appear to address the magnetic field data.”

UPDATE: NASA has issued a statement regarding this issue:

“The Voyager team is aware of reports today that NASA’s Voyager 1 has left the solar system,” said Edward Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. “It is the consensus of the Voyager science team that Voyager 1 has not yet left the solar system or reached interstellar space. In December 2012, the Voyager science team reported that Voyager 1 is within a new region called ‘the magnetic highway’ where energetic particles changed dramatically. A change in the direction of the magnetic field is the last critical indicator of reaching interstellar space and that change of direction has not yet been observed.”

Cook told Universe Today that Voyager Project Scientist Ed Stone was out of the country, and she was trying to get in touch with him to verify the paper’s claims that Voyager has left the solar system, and he obviously wasted no time in setting the record straight.

In another update, the AGU reissued the press release with a different title to “to better represent the findings reported in the study.” The initial headline was “Voyager 1 Has Left the Solar System, Sudden Changes in Cosmic Rays Indicate,” and the new headline is “Voyager 1 has entered a new region of space, sudden changes in cosmic rays indicate.” So, basically, the new paper was just iterating the previous findings.

(End of updates)

The authors of the new paper, William Webber and F.B. McDonald, cite the events of last summer when Voyager 1 measured drastic changes in radiation levels, more than 18 billion km (11 billion miles) from the Sun. On July 28, 2012 the level of lower-energy particles originating from inside our Solar System dropped by half. However, in three days, the levels had recovered to near their previous levels. But then the bottom dropped out at the end of August, where anomalous cosmic rays (cosmic rays trapped in the outer heliosphere) all but vanished, dropping to less than 1 percent of previous amounts. At the same time, galactic cosmic rays – cosmic radiation from outside of the solar system – spiked to levels not seen since Voyager’s launch, with intensities as much as twice previous levels.

“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 Webber in an AGU press release. Webber is a professor emeritus of astronomy at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. He called this transition boundary the “heliocliff.”

In the Geophysical Research Letters article, the authors say, “It appears that [Voyager 1] has exited the main solar modulation region, revealing [hydrogen] and [helium] spectra characteristic of those to be expected in the local interstellar medium.”

However, last December in a NASA press conference, the Voyager team said they infered this region is still inside our solar bubble because the direction of the magnetic field lines has not changed. The direction of these magnetic field lines is predicted to change when Voyager breaks through to interstellar space.

“We believe this is the last leg of our journey to interstellar space,” Stone said during the press conference. “Our best guess is it’s likely just a few months to a couple years away. The new region isn’t what we expected, but we’ve come to expect the unexpected from Voyager.”

We’ll provide more information on this discrepancy between the interpretations of the events when we hear more from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Voyager 1 May Have Left the Solar System

Number of particles from the Sun hitting Voyager 1. Credit: NASA

While there’s no official word from NASA on this, the buzz around the blogosphere is that Voyager 1 has left the Solar System. The evidence comes from this graph, above, which shows the number of particles, mainly protons, from the Sun hitting Voyager 1 across time. A huge drop at the end of August hints that Voyager 1 may now be in interstellar space. The last we heard from the Voyager team was early August, and they indicated that on July 28, the level of lower-energy particles originating from inside our Solar System dropped by half. However, in three days, the levels had recovered to near their previous levels. But then the bottom dropped out at the end of August.

The Voyager team has said they have been seeing two of three key signs of changes expected to occur at the boundary of interstellar space. In addition to the drop in particles from the Sun, they’ve also seen a jump in the level of high-energy cosmic rays originating from outside our Solar System.

The third key sign would be the direction of the magnetic field. No word on that yet, but scientists are eagerly analyzing the data to see whether that has, indeed, changed direction. Scientists expect that all three of these signs will have changed when Voyager 1 has crossed into interstellar space.

“These are thrilling times for the Voyager team as we try to understand the quickening pace of changes as Voyager 1 approaches the edge of interstellar space,” said Edward Stone, the Voyager project scientist for the entire mission, who was quoted in early August. “We are certainly in a new region at the edge of the solar system where things are changing rapidly. But we are not yet able to say that Voyager 1 has entered interstellar space.”

Stone added that the data are changing in ways that the team didn’t expect, “but Voyager has always surprised us with new discoveries.”

Voyager 1 launched on Sept. 5, 1977, is approximately 18 billion kilometers (11 billion miles) from the Sun. Voyager 2, which launched on Aug. 20, 1977, is close behind, at 15 billion km (9.3 billion miles) from the Sun.

Sources: NASA, Eric Berger/ Houston Chronicle, Scientific American