“There’s never been anything like this,” Ed Stone, chief scientist for the Voyager mission, told Computerworld in reference to Voyager 1’s foray into interstellar space. A study published yesterday confirmed that the probe had slipped the bonds of our solar system on August 25, 2012. The probe is the first manmade object to leave the heliosphere, the bubble of solar charged particles that encompasses the solar system.
Stone has been part of the Voyager team since the mission’s inception in the early 1970s. The Voyager 1 and 2 probes both launched in 1977. Back then, the team was uncertain about the location of the heliopause, the boundary between the heliosphere and interstellar space. “When Voyager launched, the space age was only 20 years old,” Stone said. “We had no idea if Voyager could last for 36 years and go as far as it has.”
Now that Voyager 1 is outside the heliosphere, and is soon to be joined by Voyager 2 in three to four years, according to Stone, scientists will be able to study the heliosphere from the outside. The Voyagers will reveal how the heliosphere interacts with interstellar radiation and winds. Understanding interstellar radiation is pivotal to future deep-space missions, manned and unmanned. Outside Earth’s magnetic field, manned spacecraft, robotic probes, and rovers would be exposed to much higher radiation levels.
Scientists and engineers on the Voyager team answered questions about Voyager 1 on Reddit on Thursday, providing additional information about the probe’s future. Voyager 1 has enough power in its nuclear batteries to keep its scientific instruments functioning through at least 2020; after that, NASA will be forced to begin deactivating the instruments, with the last one shutting down in 2025. The Voyager team already shut down the probe’s camera in 1990, after snapping the famous “Pale Blue Dot” photo of Earth.
Among the instruments still operating on Voyager 1 are those that take energetic particle measurements, the magnetometer, the plasma wave sensor, and the ultraviolet spectrum instrument. The Voyager team plans to use these devices to gather information on galactic cosmic rays and the galactic magnetic field.
After 2025, Voyager 1 will fall eternally silent. With nothing stopping it, the probe will continue to hurtle through space at 38,000 miles per hour. The spacecraft is sailing towards the constellation Ophiuchus. In the far distant future, in the year 40,272 AD, Voyager 1 will sail within 1.7 light years of AC+79 3888, a star in the constellation Ursa Minor.