Voyager 1 Spacecraft Enters New Region of Solar System


Voyager 1 is in uncharted territory. The long-lived spacecraft has entered a new region of space that lies between where our solar system ends and where interstellar space begins. This area is not a place of sightseeing however, as a NASA press release referred to it as a kind of “cosmic purgatory.”

Here, the solar winds ebb somewhat, the magnetic field increases and charged particles from within our solar system – is leaking out into interstellar space. This data has been compiled from information received from Voyager 1 over the course of the last year.

The Voyager spacecraft's compliment of scientific instruments have provided scientists back on Earth with information about what the space environment at the fringes of our sun's influence is truly like. Image Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech

“Voyager tells us now that we’re in a stagnation region in the outermost layer of the bubble around our solar system,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Voyager is showing that what is outside is pushing back. We shouldn’t have long to wait to find out what the space between stars is really like.”

Despite the fact that Voyager 1 is approximately 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) distant from the sun – it still has not encounter interstellar space. The information that scientists have gleaned from the Voyager 1 spacecraft indicates that the spacecraft is still located within the heliosphere. The heliosphere is a “bubble” of charged particles that the sun blows around itself and its retinue of planets.

Voyager 1 has traveled far past the realm of the gas or even ice giants and is now in uncharted territory where scientists are learning more and more about the dynamic environment at the far-flung edges of our solar system. Image Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech

The latest findings were made using Voyager’s Low Energy Charged Particle instrument, Cosmic Ray Subsystem and Magnetometer.

Experts are not certain how long it will take the Voyager 1 spacecraft to finally breach this bubble and head out into interstellar space. Best estimates place the length of time when this could happen anywhere from the next few months – to years. These findings counter findings announced in April of 2010 that showed that Voyager 1 had essentially crossed the heliosphere boundary. The discoveries made during the past year hint that this region of space is far more dynamic than previously thought.

Voyager 1 has entered into a region of space between the sun's influence and the beginning of interstellar space that NASA has dubbed the "stagnation region." Image Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech

The magnetometer aboard Voyager 1 has picked up an increase in the intensity of the magnetic field located within this “stagnation field.” Essentially the inward pressure from interstellar space is compressing the magnetic field to twice its original density. The spacecraft has also detected a 100-fold increase in the intensity of high-energy electrons diffusing into our solar system from outside – this is yet another indicator that Voyager 1 is approaching the heliosphere.

The interplanetary probe was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Sept. 5, 1977, Voyager 1’s sister ship, Voyager 2 is also in good health and is about 9 billion miles (15 billion kilometers) from the sun (it too was launched in 1977). The spacecraft itself was built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“Voyager is a mission of discovery and it’s at the edge of the solar system still making discoveries,” said Stone said. “The stagnation is the latest in the whole journey of discovery. We are all excited because we believe it means we’re getting very close to boundary of heliosphere and the entry into interstellar space.”

Both of the Voyager spacecraft were thrust to orbit by the powerful Titan boosters - and both in the same year - 1977. Photo Credit: NASA

Voyager 2

Voyager 2 Mission


Voyager 2 is easily the most famous spacecraft sent from Earth to explore other planets. Launched on August 20, 1977, Voyager visited Jupiter and Saturn, and is the only spacecraft to have ever made a flyby of the outer planets Uranus and Neptune. It flew past Neptune in 1989, but it’s still functioning and communicating with Earth.

Voyager 2 and its twin spacecraft Voyager 1 were built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. The two spacecraft were built with identical components, but launched on slightly different trajectories. Voyager 2 took advantage of a rare alignment of the planets so that it could use a gravity assisting boost as it flew past each one. The increased velocity from Jupiter would help it reach Saturn, Saturn helped it get to Uranus and then to Neptune.

It made its closest approach to Jupiter on July 9, 1979, passing within 570,000 km of the planet’s cloud tops. It captured some of the first, highest resolution images of Jupiter’s moons, showing volcanism on Io, and cracks in the icy surface of Europa. Astronomers now suspect that Europa’s surface hides a vast ocean of water ice.

Voyager 2 then went on to visit Saturn on August 26, 1981, and then onto Uranus on January 24, 1986. This was the first time a spacecraft had ever encountered Uranus, and captured images of the planet close up. Voyager studied Uranus’ rings, and discovered several new moons orbiting the planet. Voyager 2 made its final planetary visit with Neptune on August 25, 1989. Here the spacecraft discovered the planet’s “Great Dark Spot”, and discovered more new moons.

Voyager 2 is now considered an interstellar mission. This means that it has enough velocity to escape the Solar System and travel to another star. Of course, at its current speed, it would take hundreds of thousands of years to reach even the closest star. Scientists think that the spacecraft will continue transmitting radio signals until at least 2025, almost 50 years after it was launched.

We have written many articles about Voyager 2 for Universe Today. Here’s an article about NASA’s diagnosed problems with Voyager 2, and here are some Voyager 2 pictures.

If you’d like more information on the Voyager 2 mission, here’s a link to Voyager’s Interstellar Mission Homepage, and here’s the homepage for NASA’s Voyager Mission Website.

We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Interstellar Travel. Listen here, Episode 145: Interstellar Travel.

Source: NASA

Life-size Wooden Spacecraft Sculptures


If you think about it, spacecraft are kind of ethereal in that once they are launched into space, we don’t ever see them again. Australian artist Peter Hennessey has created life-size wooden sculptures of several different spacecraft, giving people the chance to see and touch these objects that are immediately recognizable but which we will never actually experience. Hennessey says he wanted to “reverse the virtualization of physical things” by creating life-size reproductions of the spacecraft such as the Voyager space probe, Apollo Lunar Rover, the Hubble Space Telescope, and more. From Hennessey’s website: “By ‘re-enacting’ space traveling, scientific and military objects in plywood, galvanized steel and canvas, the artist creates ‘stand-ins’ that allow the viewer to contemplate their physical, symbolic and historical resonances as well as the political processes that they represent.”

I just think they are really cool, and I’d love to see them – Hubble has to be huge! See below.

'My Hubble (the universe turned in on itself)' by artist Peter Hennessey.

“My Hubble (the universe turned in on itself) is now on display in Sydney Australia as part of “Biennale of sydney 2010.” This life size ‘re-enactment’ of the Hubble Space Telescope was constructed “with the aim of giving the viewer a physical experience of the object.” It is constructed from lasercut plywood and steel and simultaneously enacts the scale and detail
of the original. This is an interactive sculpture: visitors are encouraged to play with, modify and create their own mini universes on the ground, which are then reflected by the telescope into the heavens.

According to the Design Bloom website, when creating his work Hennessey looked at 7 different images of the Hubble, and rather than using 3D software to model individual parts as one might expect, he used adobe illustrator. Building the telescope took about 3 months – in which 6 weeks were dedicated to laser cutting individual parts and building them into sections and the rest of the time was dedicated to assembling it.

'My Lunar Rover' by artist Peter Hennessey.

With ‘My Moon Landing’ Hennessey’s wanted to explore the “physicality, presences and symbolic power of the inaccessible objects that derive from the space race.”

Hennessey has even built a wooden replica of mission control.

Check out all his unique sculptures on his website.

Hat tip to Rachel Hobson!


Nereid is the name given to the third largest of Neptune’s moons, and the second to have been discovered … by veteran outer solar system astronomer, Gerard P. Kuiper (guess who the Kuiper Belt is named after!), in 1949. Prior to Voyager 2’s arrival, it was the last moon of Neptune to be discovered.

In keeping with the nautical theme (Neptune, Roman god of the sea; Triton, Greek sea god, son of Poseidon), Nereid is named after the fifty sea nymphs, daughters of Nereus and Doris, in Greek mythology … the nautical theme continues with the names of the other 11 moons of Neptune, Naiad (one kind of nymph, Greek mythology; not a Nereid), Thalassa (daughter of Aether and Hemera, Greek mythology; also Greek for ‘sea’), Despina (nymph, daughter of Poseidon and Demeter (Greek); not a Nereid), Galatea (one of the Nereids), Larissa (Poseidon’s lover; Poseidon is the Greek Neptune), Proteus (also a sea god in Greek mythology; Proteus is the Neptune’s second largest moon), Halimede (one of the Nereids), Sao (also one of the Nereids), Laomedeia (guess … yep, another of the Nereids), Psamathe (ditto), and Neso (ditto, all over again).

Almost everything we know about Nereid comes from the images Voyager 2 took of it (83), between 20 April and 19 August, 1989; its closest approach was approximately 4.7 million km.

Nereid’s highly eccentric orbit (eccentricity 0.75, the highest of any solar system moon) takes it from 1.37 million km from Neptune to 9.66 million km (average 5.51 million km); unlike Triton, and like the other inner moons, Nereid’s orbit is prograde. This suggests that it may be a captured Kuiper Belt object, or that its orbit was substantially perturbed when Triton was captured.

For an irregular moon, Nereid is rather large (radius approx 170 km). Its spectrum and color (grey) are quite different from those of other outer solar system bodies (e.g. Chiron), which suggests that it may have formed around Neptune.

For more on Nereid, check out the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) profile of it!

Nereid is a bit of an orphan with regard to Universe Today stories, but there are some! Three new moons discovered for Neptune , and How Many Moons Does Neptune Have?.