For the second time ever in history, a human-made object is flying in interstellar space as NASA’s pioneering spacecraft Voyager 2 has left the Solar System.
The Voyager 2 spacecraft left Earth in 1977 and has been flying through space ever since, leaving the Sun’s protective bubble today (December 10) which means it is now over 11 billion miles away.
It follows in the footsteps of Voyager 1, the first human-made object to enter interstellar space, which is currently uncharted, in 2012.
Taking with it a pioneering instrument into interstellar space, Voyager 2 will send back observations to NASA’s team on Earth who are still able to communicate with the craft.
Since the spacecraft is so far away though, it takes information, moving at the speed of light, 16 and a half hours to reach NASA.
NASA knew Voyager 2 has left the heliosphere – the protective bubble created by the Sun which is made up of particles and magnetic fields and represents the edge of the solar system – when the onboard Plasma Science Experiment (PLS) no longer detected the plasma which flows out from the sun.
For the second time in history, a human-made object has reached the space between the stars. Now slightly more than 11 billion miles (18 bil. km) from Earth, @NASAVoyager 2 has now left the Sun's protective bubble & is flying in interstellar space: https://t.co/zRnhiaJqGS #AGU18 pic.twitter.com/Zzncki4GKB
— NASA (@NASA) December 10, 2018
The space agency announced the exciting news in a press release which added that members of NASA’s Voyager team will discuss the findings at a news conference later today at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington.
John Richardson, principal investigator for the PLS instrument and a principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, spoke about the importance of Voyager 2 entering interstellar space explaining:
Working on Voyager makes me feel like an explorer, because everything we’re seeing is new. Even though Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause in 2012, it did so at a different place and a different time, and without the PLS data. So we’re still seeing things that no one has seen before.
There is still much to learn about interstellar space and since Voyager 2 has the equipment needed to make observations, we are sure it will lead to plenty of exciting and groundbreaking discoveries.
Not only did NASA see evidence from the plasma data, but the three other onboard instruments – the cosmic ray subsystem, the low energy charged particle instrument and the magnetometer – also demonstrated that the spacecraft has reached interstellar space.
The craft’s team members hope to use these instruments to get a picture of what kind of environment Voyager 2 is travelling through.
Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters, said:
Voyager has a very special place for us in our heliophysics fleet.
Our studies start at the Sun and extend out to everything the solar wind touches. To have the Voyagers sending back information about the edge of the Sun’s influence gives us an unprecedented glimpse of truly uncharted territory.
Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, added:
I think we’re all happy and relieved that the Voyager probes have both operated long enough to make it past this milestone. This is what we’ve all been waiting for. Now we’re looking forward to what we’ll be able to learn from having both probes outside the heliopause.
We also look forward to seeing what information Voyager 2 brings home.
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Emily Murray is a journalist at UNILAD. She graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA in English Literature and History before studying for a Masters in Journalism at the University of Salford. Emily has previously worked for the BBC, ITV and Trinity Mirror. When Emily isn’t writing about topics including mental health and entertainment, you can find her at the cinema which is her second home.