NASA's probe travels beyond solar wind bubble on longest running mission

NASA's probe travels beyond solar wind bubble on longest running mission

For just the second time in history, a man-made spacecraft has left the boundaries of the heliosphere and ventured into interstellar space, officials said.

Since that date, it has observed no solar wind flow in the environment around Voyager 2, which makes mission scientists confident the probe has left the heliosphere. Their continuing science will help shed light on how particles flowing off the sun collide with the particles on the interstellar wind beyond. The space probe, originally launched in 1977, has traveled well beyond its original destinations. NASA altered the path of Voyager such that it conducted flybys of Uranus and Neptune, making the first exploration of those very distant planets.

"Both spacecrafts are very healthy if you consider them senior citizens", Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd said.

Assuming they stay on course, it's going to be a lonely trip for the Voyagers, because even though our Earthly skies appear to glitter with countless pinpricks of light, space is mostly empty.

Voyager 2 launched on August 20, 1977, atop a Titan 3E rocket. The two are now outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the sun that extends beyond the orbit of Pluto. The greatest concerns about keeping the probes operating are power and thermal. The Sun's heat can no longer touch Voyager 2 but its gravity still can.

"It was about a month's worth of checking to make sure the universe wasn't playing tricks on us", Mr Nagle said. "I think that would be fantastic".

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NASA launched Voyagers 2 and 1 (it launched Voyager 2 first) in 1977 to explore Jupiter, Saturn, and the space beyond. In fact, something like this happened when Voyager 2 crossed the termination shock in 2007.

A specialized instrument aboard Voyager 2, the Plasma Science Experiment, played an important role in confirming that Voyager 2 had left the protective heliosphere. Voyager 2 is now NASA's longest running mission, reports Xinhua.

According to Nasa, the Voyagers are still technically in our solar system. This signified to NASA that, indeed, Voyager 2 was finally interstellar.

Beyond that, both spacecraft will continue on their journeys outward, passing through scattered dust clouds on their way through the local bubble, a cavern of relatively empty space blown by tempestuous dying stars. How precisely that balance plays out could shape how hospitable these planets are to life. It was almost two decades ago that Voyager 2 made its fly-by past Neptune, the outermost planet of the solar system (since Pluto's tragic demotion, at least).

But it still has a long way to travel until it reaches the edge of the solar system, which is defined by a halo of objects such as comets known as the Oort Cloud. Getting beyond that celestial border could then take around 30,000 years.

On November 5, Voyager 2's PSE recorded a sudden drop-off in the speed of solar wind particles, and has detected no more in the time that has elapsed since.

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