The Two-Way
11:40 pm
Sun August 18, 2013

Has Voyager 1 Left The Solar System?

Originally published on Mon August 19, 2013 11:52 am

The Voyager 1 spacecraft launched in 1977 on a mission to Jupiter and Saturn. It kept on going. Today it's billions of miles from Earth, and scientists have been predicting it will soon leave the solar system.

NPR has been on Voyager watch since at least 2003, when longtime science correspondent Richard Harris provided this warning of Voyager's impending departure.

But now Marc Swisdak, a physicist at the University of Maryland, says the spacecraft may have already left. "Late July 2012 is when we think it [left]," he says.

How did we miss that? As it turns out, it wasn't entirely our fault. Researchers thought the solar system was surrounded by a clearly marked magnetic field bubble.

"There's one at the Earth, there's one at Jupiter, Saturn — many planets have them. And so just by analogy we were expecting there to be something like that for the solar system," Swisdak says.

Scientists were waiting for Voyager to cross over the magnetic edge of our solar system and into the magnetic field of interstellar space. But in a paper in the September issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, Swisdak and his colleagues say the magnetic fields may blend together. And so in July 2012, when Voyager crossed from the solar system into deep space, "Voyager just kept cruising along," Swisdak says. All scientists saw was a change in the field's direction.

But not everyone thinks Voyager has left. Ed Stone is NASA's chief scientist for Voyager. He thinks there is a magnetic edge to the solar system, and until Voyager sees a change in the magnetic field, it hasn't left the solar system. He's hoping that change will come in the next few years.

"I think that there is a very good chance before we run out of electrical power that we will be demonstrably in interstellar space," he says.

Until Voyager's power goes out or the magnetic field flips, the scientific debate will continue. So will Voyager's journey, Swisdak says: "Basically it's just happily heading out toward ... pretty much nowhere."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched in 1977 on a mission to Jupiter and Saturn, and it has just kept on going, and going. Today it's billions of miles from Earth, and scientists have been predicting it will soon leave our solar system. But one research team says it already has and that it happened a year ago. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel asks, how'd we miss that?

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: For the past decade or so, we here at NPR have been waiting for Voyager 1 to leave the solar system.

RICHARD HARRIS: (Unintelligible) and his colleagues believe that Voyager 1 passed through the beginning of the end of our solar system.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And it's about to leave the space that is influenced by the energy from the sun.

AUDIE CORNISH: Voyager 1 is almost there.

BRUMFIEL: That's NPR's Richard Harris, Steve Inskeep and Audie Cornish. But now Marc Swisdak, a researcher at the University of Maryland, says the spacecraft may have already left.

MARC SWISDAK: July - late July 2012 is when we think it is.

BRUMFIEL: July 27, to be precise, which is almost my birthday.

SWISDAK: It's almost my wedding anniversary too. So there is that going forth.

BRUMFIEL: Seriously, though. How did we miss that? As it turned out, it wasn't entirely our fault. Researchers thought the solar system was surrounded by a clearly marked magnetic field.

SWISDAK: There's one at the Earth, there's one at, for instance, Jupiter, Saturn, many of the planets have them. And so just by analogy, we were expecting there to be something like that for the solar system.

BRUMFIEL: Scientists were waiting for Voyager to cross over the magnetic edge of our solar system and into the magnetic field of interstellar space. But in a paper in the September issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, Swisdak and his colleagues say the magnetic fields may blend together. And so in July of 2012, when Voyager crossed from the solar system into deep space, all they saw was a little change in the field.

SWISDAK: Voyager just kept cruising along.

BRUMFIEL: But not everyone thinks Voyager has left. Ed Stone is NASA's chief scientist for Voyager. He thinks there is a magnetic edge, and until Voyager sees a change in the magnetic field, it's still in the solar system. He's hoping that change will come in coming years.

ED STONE: I think there's a very good chance before we run out of electrical power that we will be demonstrably in interstellar space.

BRUMFIEL: Until Voyager's power goes out or the magnetic field flips, Swisdak says the scientific debate will continue. So will Voyager's journey.

SWISDAK: Basically it's just happily heading off towards pretty much nowhere.

BRUMFIEL: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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