Entering Deep Space
Voyager 1 nears the farthest edge of our solar system
To greet potential alien life, each Voyager spacecraft carries a golden disc with images of Earth and recordings of Earth sounds and music. (NASA)
A spacecraft is about to leave our solar system for the first time in the history of human space travel.
In 1977, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was sent from Earth to explore the outer reaches of the solar system. Along with its sister ship, Voyager 2, the spacecraft flew around the faraway planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune in the 1980s. The two spacecraft took photographs and collected scientific data on each planet. Once their primary project officially ended in 1989, both continued to drift through space.
Now NASA, the U.S. space agency, has announced that Voyager 1 is nearing the heliopause. This is believed to be the border between Earth’s solar system and interstellar space, or the part of outer space that exists between the stars. This is where the force of the sun’s magnetic fields lose power to those from deep space.
“We are approaching the solar system’s frontier,” says Ed Stone, one of the scientists working on the Voyager project. “The latest data indicate that we are clearly in a new region, where things are changing more quickly.”
Although the original Voyager mission ended many years ago, scientists are still learning a lot from the spacecraft. As Voyager 1’s journey continues into deep space and passes through regions like the heliopause, the spacecraft sends back information collected from areas that have never before been explored.
“We've been surprised by Voyager again and again,” NASA researcher Eric Christian tells USA Today. “That both Voyager [spacecraft] are still working well, nearly 35 years after launch, and sending back important science from 10 billion miles away is truly amazing.”
Both spacecraft are expected to stop sending data back to Earth sometime between 2020 and 2025. But their journeys into interstellar space will continue. If they stay on course without colliding into another object in space, one of the Voyager spacecraft will likely pass by another star in about 200,000 years.