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Voyager 1 reaches solar system's final frontier

Craft reaches a region that's 8.7 billion miles from the sun--twice as far away as Pluto. Images: Voyager 1's journey nears 28 years

2 min read
NASA's Voyager 1 has reached the final frontier of our solar system, having traveled through a turbulent place where electrically charged particles from the sun crash into thin gas from interstellar space.

Astronomers tracking the little spaceship's nearly 28-year journey from Earth believe Voyager 1 has gone through a region known as termination shock, some 8.7 billion miles from the sun, and entered an area called the heliosheath.

"Voyager 1 has entered the final lap on its race to the edge of interstellar space," Edward Stone, Voyager project scientist at the California Institute of Technology, said in a statement this week.

Voyager watchers theorized that the craft might be reaching this bumpy region of space last November, when the charged solar particles known as the solar wind seemed to slow down from a top speed of 1.5 million miles per hour.

This was expected at the area of termination shock, where the solar winds were expected to decelerate as they bump up against gas from the space beyond our solar system. It is more than twice as distant as Pluto, the furthest planet in our system.

By monitoring the craft's speed and the increase in the force of the solar wind, Voyager scientists now believe the craft has made it through the shock and into the heliosheath.

Predicting the location of the termination shock was hard because the precise conditions in interstellar space are unknown, and the termination shock can expand, contract and ripple, depending on changes in the speed and pressure of the solar wind.

"Voyager's observations over the past few years show the termination shock is far more complicated than anyone thought," said Eric Christian, a scientist with NASA's Sun-Solar System Connection program.

Voyager 1 and its twin spacecraft, Voyager 2, were launched in 1977 on a mission to explore the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn. The pair kept going, however, and the mission was extended.

Voyager 2 went on to explore Uranus and Neptune, making it the only spacecraft to have visited these outer planets. Both Voyagers are now part of the Voyager Interstellar Mission to explore the outermost edge of the sun's domain.

Both Voyagers are capable of returning scientific data from a full range of instruments, with adequate electrical power and attitude control propellant to keep operating until 2020.

Wherever they go, the Voyagers each carry a golden phonograph record that bears messages from Earth, including natural sounds of surf, wind, thunder and animals. There are also musical selections, spoken greetings in 55 languages, along with instructions and equipment on how to play the record.

More information and images can be found at NASA's Web site.

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