Monday, 06 April, 2020


Voyager 2's First Reports from Interstellar Space Surprise Scientists

Voyager 2 probe sends data from interstellar space back to Earth What Voyager 2 has learned since entering interstellar space
Kristine Garrett | 21 March, 2020, 02:24

An artist's concept depicting one of NASA's twin Voyager spacecraft.

A probe launched by NASA four days after Elvis died has delivered a treasure trove of data from beyond the "solar bubble" that envelops Earth and our neighbouring planets, scientists reported Monday.

One year and one day ago, Voyager 2 left the solar system at a spot 119 Earth-Sun distances away, scientists confirmed today.

The spacecraft was able to analyse the makeup of solar winds, the composition and behavior of plasma particles, the interaction of cosmic rays, the structure and direction of magnetic fields, and other traits that define the edges of the solar system. Here are the five biggest takeaways.

The similarity in distance "is very unusual in the sense that one occurred at the solar minimum when solar activity is the least and the other one occurred at solar maximum", he said.

The fact that both Voyager 1 and 2, which launched in 1977 to explore planets in our solar system, were created to only last for five years and have reached 42 is a wonderfully exciting surprise, Stone said.

However, Voyager 1 reached both Jupiter and Saturn sooner, as Voyager 2 had been launched into a longer, more circular trajectory. The new findings confirm that the leakiness of the heliopause, spotted in two very different parts of the heliosphere, is not a rare characteristic of the bubble, although there is still no real explanation for what's causing it. Voyager 2 entered interstellar space, the region between the stars.

But Bill Kurth, of the University of Iowa, said: "They will outlast Earth". The marked increase in plasma density is evidence of Voyager 2 journeying from the hot, lower-density plasma characteristic of the solar wind to the cool, higher-density plasma of interstellar space.

While scientists were aware of the inner layer, the presence of the outer layer became evident only after Voyager 2 crossed into interstellar space.

"Think of a cold front that forms when a very cold air mass comes down to the US from Canada", said Don Gurnett, professor of physics at the University of Iowa. Yet they crossed into the ISM at basically the same distances from the sun.

This graphic shows the position of NASA's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto. Scientists are studying the discrepancies in the data in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the boundary between our solar system and the wider galaxy.

Voyager 2 also made some observations that don't square up with a sharp boundary-at least not what we'd expect. When Voyager 1 crossed, "we were surprised to find that the direction of the magnetic field was not what we had expected when we were outside, and with Voyager 2 we are finding a very similar result".

Voyager 2 comes equipped with five different science operating instruments.

The shape depends, in a complex way, on the relative strengths of the magnetic fields inside and outside of the heliosphere, and the latest measurements are suggestive of a more spherical form.

It will be some time before we have more data to study. Turns out the sun's impact goes beyond its own borders. Even after Voyager 2 crossed the heliopause, it picked up particles coming from the sun. Supernovae send shock waves out into the galaxy as well, stirring the interstellar medium, albeit at a much more intense scale than CMEs.

"As it moves through the interstellar medium" - the vast expanses of space between stellar fiefdoms - "there's a wave in front, just as with the bow of a ship", Stone told journalists by phone. The intensity of cosmic rays there was just 90% of their intensity farther out.

"When the two Voyagers were launched, the space age was only 20 years old", says Stone.

The next cosmic meeting is scheduled for 40,000 years.

The thrusters on both spacecraft are also degrading. Each probe is powered by radioisotopic thermoelectric generators heated by plutonium-238.

Though NASA continues to monitor, communicate with, and collect data from both Voyager probes, converting this data into useful scientific insights is largely the responsibility of scientists based at different institutions throughout the US.

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