National Geographic

VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers

Menu

Voyager 1 Reaches Gateway to the Galaxy

This artist's concept shows NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft exploring the outer shell of the solar system before entering interstellar space.  Credit: JPL/NASA
This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft exploring the outer shell of the solar system before entering interstellar space. Credit: JPL/NASA

 

Despite traveling 36 years and 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) from home, the intrepid Voyager 1 spacecraft still has not left the solar neighborhood. But all indications are that it is now crossing a major threshold to the rest of the galaxy. (Related: “Voyager at the Edge: Cosmic Roadtrip Hits Milestone.” )

New research published this week in the journal Science offers tantalizing clues about Voyager’s current location at the edge of the solar system, or heliosphere—the bubble-like boundary that divides the realm of the sun’s influence from interstellar space.

The specific region Voyager is currently sailing through has been dubbed the “magnetic highway.” It’s located within the outermost part of the heliosphere’s border, called the heliosheath. A confusing place, this highway is where there appears to be a connection between the solar and interstellar magnetic lines, and is where the flow of charged particles moves in and out of the solar system.

Newly released Voyager data from August 2012 indicate its instruments had detected the solar wind—the particles emanating from the sun—that had been buffeting the spacecraft for nearly four decades practically flat-lined. At the same time, sensors detected skyrocketing levels of incoming galactic particles from outside the solar system. These cosmic rays are thought to originate from the violent explosions given off by dying stars that go supernova.

“This strange, last region before interstellar space is coming into focus, thanks to Voyager 1, humankind’s most distant scout,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“We saw a dramatic and rapid disappearance of the solar-originating particles. They decreased in intensity by more than a thousand times, as if there was a huge vacuum pump at the entrance ramp onto the magnetic highway,” said Stamatios Krimigis, the chief scientist in charge of Voyager’s low-energy charged particle instrument, in a press statement . “We have never witnessed such a decrease before, except when Voyager 1 exited the giant magnetosphere of Jupiter, some 34 years ago.”

Still in the Neighborhood

On its own this might have been considered key evidence that Voyager was about to make its exit from the solar system. But the on-board magnetometer paints a different picture. It is still detecting faint traces of the solar magnetic field, clearly indicating to mission scientists that the space probe is still within the realm of the sun. What they are waiting for now is for Voyager to detect an abrupt change in the direction of the magnetic field—which would indicate it’s originating from interstellar space and not from the sun.

“If you looked at the cosmic ray and energetic particle data in isolation, you might think Voyager had reached interstellar space, but the team feels Voyager 1 has not yet gotten there because we are still within the domain of the Sun’s magnetic field,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in a NASA press release.

This artist's concept shows NASA's two Voyager spacecraft exploring a turbulent region of space known as the heliosheath, the outer shell of the bubble of charged particles around our sun. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist’s concept shows NASA’s two Voyager spacecraft exploring a turbulent region of space known as the heliosheath, the outer shell of the bubble of charged particles around our sun. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

How long will it take for Voyager 1, traveling at 38,000 miles per hour (61,115 kilometers per hour), to officially exit our solar neighborhood? It really depends on the width of this strange transition zone it’s currently crossing. NASA scientists estimate it could take anywhere from a few months, to even years—but no one knows.

“But the wait itself is incredibly exciting, since Voyager continues to defy predictions and change the way we think about this mysterious and wonderful gateway region to the galaxy,” said Krimigis.

When it does come out on the other side, it will make history by becoming the first human-made object to leave the solar system and enter the realm of the stars and the rest of the Milky Way.

 

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter and Facebook.

Comments

  1. Ronald
    United States
    July 27, 2013, 4:24 am

    This is just fascinating stuff, just overwhelming facts on how big our own galaxy is. So many stars in the Milky Way yet it will travel at that speed for tens of thousands of years and still not travel the distance from earth to the nearest start.

  2. David
    China
    July 4, 2013, 1:20 am

    congratuations,it will be a big step of traveling to the universe for human.

  3. Jason
    South Australia
    July 3, 2013, 3:11 am

    I think that every 10-20 years, we should send out a series of probes in a similar fashion to the Voyager probes. Perhaps 3 set out in different directions, but at specific targets. With advancing technology, imagine our young children of today, when they are middle aged getting the same sense of joy that we get from Voyager launched over 3 decades ago. Of course with new instruments, we could learn so much more than the current probes. Tomorrows missions depend on todays decisions.

  4. AJ
    US
    July 2, 2013, 6:08 pm

    To Hakim,
    Radio waves travel at the speed of light in a vacuum. Space is essentially a vacuum. So that is the time the signal from Voyager takes to get back to Earth.

  5. Judy Plummer
    Hastings, Ontario, CA
    July 1, 2013, 9:22 am

    Andrew. First, Happy Canada Day. Now, when they use the boomerang effect for space travel, is another name for this manauver called a Tychon. I read this so long ago, perhaps 35 years ago. Perhaps 40 years ago I read this, I’m not sure, however it was a book describing how it was already being used for travel from other places. Is this a true word. Have a wonderful day Andrew.

  6. Hakim Chettouh
    Earth - Algeria
    July 1, 2013, 12:23 am

    To Andrew Fazekas,

    Many thanks to bring updates about Voyager-1
    As for the time it takes for the signal one way, 17 hours is for light:
    18,000,000,000,000 [meters] / 299 792 458 [meters/second] = +600000 seconds
    60000 sec / 3600 = 16.67 hours Almost 17 hours.

    But Voyager is not sending light signals.

  7. Hakim Chettouh
    Earth - Algeria
    July 1, 2013, 12:08 am

    To Venera 8

    USSR probes might be ones out of solar system, but might also have hit any object (fallen on other planet, remember gravity and they do not have any control), asteroid, moon, orbiting somewhere in solar system.

    Big credit goes to Voyager 1 which is taking us, taking US scientist, forward.

  8. bh
    usa
    June 30, 2013, 9:56 pm

    Its all very exciting but we will be dead and gone before it really gets far away. If we could put todays technology on that thing it would be useful, but Its an antique. Its real value is braging rights and the satisfaction that we did it.

  9. Ryan O'Doherty
    England, Terra
    June 30, 2013, 4:55 pm

    What a fantastic achievement! Like many others have said, we need to spend more money on these kind of foreign adventures rather than the endless cycle of wars back here.

    How long will the Voyager probes power sources last?

  10. Carletta
    La Porte Texas
    June 30, 2013, 2:44 pm

    So COOl! I remember when my grandmother did not beleive the astronauts wrer on the moon!Amazing and very exciting!Who cares about the writing this is science and amazing exploration!

  11. Andrew
    Arlington, VA
    June 30, 2013, 12:30 pm

    At this distance, how long does it take for the signals to return to earth?

    • Andrew Fazekas
      June 30, 2013, 1:29 pm

      I think it takes about 17 hours for the signal to travel one way.

  12. Khristovha
    Lagos,Nigeria
    June 30, 2013, 12:04 pm

    Hmmm…but how possible?..asin i can’t understand how it is still able to transmit signals..can someone help me out please?

  13. Chris
    United States
    June 30, 2013, 11:31 am

    I understand the idea that making new spacecraft go faster, due to advances in technology since the Voyager probes were designed, but it isn’t that simple. We have never launched a probe with sufficient velocity, upon launch, to escape the solar system. New Horizons, launched in 2006, has been the closest, as it had a faster launch velocity (16 km/s, 36,000 mph) than any prior probe. Nevertheless, New Horizons will never overtake either Voyager probe, as the Voyager probes are currently travelling faster than New Horizons.
    The difference was in how we were able to use a slingshot maneuver (gravitational assist) around other planets to increase their speeds. Jupiter is the heavyweight of the planets of our system, but given that it has a 12 year orbital period, Jupiter often won’t line up well with where you want to go.
    There is also the question of “how much science do you want to perform along the way?” as that will impact how much mass you are working with, and your path. For example, NASA could have found a way to make New Horizons travel faster, but its primary goal was to gather data on Pluto and as it is, its greatest limitation on that aspect of its mission is that it will only be able to gather around 4 months of data (starting in May 2015) with greater resolution than what we can get from the Hubble Space Telescope – but will come within 10,000 km of Pluto and 27,000 km of Charon at its closest approach in July 2015, so that will be an exciting 4 month period. Fact is, we will also get Kuiper Belt data, but are unlikely to ever see the sort of data from New Horizons as we are out of Voyager, as New Horizons will probably cease transmitting before it gets that far.

  14. anuja tidke
    india
    June 30, 2013, 9:32 am

    it is like miracle.the one of the human have seen in his science history.it is very strange that the teck in 1976 is powerful as to keep contact with craft which is so far.the voyagar is very important for us becouse it can search somthing new about cosmos even alian!!!!!!!!!!!!

  15. Eugene figueroa
    Puerto Rico
    June 30, 2013, 8:36 am

    What ever happened to voyager 2 are we still in touch with It?

  16. Kurisu Exia
    Earth, Sol System
    June 30, 2013, 7:42 am

    First to So Beit, the golden records are on the voyager space probes. Try learning please before replying. To those that say “OH, make it go faster.” Seriously, how ignorant are you. To the “…That go supernova?” How the writer put it is just fine. Doesnt go against grammar. So I guess you should be asked, did you *Craig* take an English class? (there are stars that HAVE GONE supernova, are ABOUT to go supernova, and ones that ARE going supernova as we speak.) So the uses of “That go supernova” was right to use in the sense of past ones, ones happening right now and ones that will happen as voyager continues its journey.
    To NAT GEO, thank you! Andrew, thank you for the update on Voyager.

    P.S. Please don’t let these people that commented such foolish things make you think there aren’t people that actually know what this means. We are there but we have lives and don’t feel the need to voice online to make up for them. To you people that made the ignorant comments, please READ more and learn before commenting.

  17. Caledõn
    Valencia, CA
    June 30, 2013, 6:09 am

    I’m really impressed that for a piece of 36 year old technology, and considering the great distance that it is currently in, it’s transmitting signals that we on earth are receiving. Ok I’m impressed by this to the point of my jaw actually dropped.

  18. Venera 8
    Philippines
    June 30, 2013, 5:33 am

    Well I bet the USSR space probes that were lost in space might already the one who achieved the history. of being the first man-made object to exit the solar system.

  19. Venera 8
    Philippines
    June 30, 2013, 5:33 am

    Well I bet the USSR space probe thats were lost in space might already the one who achieved the history. of being the first man-made object to exit the solar system.

  20. D. Harvatis
    Greece
    June 30, 2013, 5:25 am

    (Please correct that “it’s” in the third paragraph and that “faintly traces” in the sixth, I can’t share the article like this!) :-) :-)
    (Oh, and there seems to be a bit missing from the third-to-last paragraph: “anywhere from….”, but where’s the “…to”?)

  21. Bart
    Singapore
    June 30, 2013, 3:07 am

    to “So Beit” The Golden Record you were talking about is on this same spacecraft Voyager I which was launched in 1977. So the statement is correct, Voyager I is the first man made object to exit the Solar System.

  22. BubbaKrubba
    Earth
    June 30, 2013, 1:29 am

    I would like to see more funds set aside for space projects and explorations like this one than wasting money on wars around the globe.
    Very interesting and exciting to search for answers to our long list of questions about the vast universe and whether there is life in other corners of our Milky Way and other Galaxies.
    Long way to go but awesome.

  23. Hakim Chettouh
    Algeria
    June 30, 2013, 1:15 am

    Big proud for engineers and specialists who designed, built and managed Voyager 1. They must very excited it is still working. NASA must award them at Best.

    Instruments are still working? Signal is still received? how much confidence are we in these data? Light will travel distance to Voyager in almost 17 hours, what about Voyager Signal? load of excitement.

  24. what So beit
    heliosheath
    June 30, 2013, 12:36 am

    Voyager carries the golden record

  25. Kevin
    Idaho
    June 29, 2013, 11:47 pm

    to Craig:if you re-read the sentence you’ll understand the grammar is correct……
    I can’t wait to see if Voyager finds anything in its journey. I wonder how long we’ll stay in contact with it and how far it will be when we lose contact…Either way,I wish it well on its long journey

  26. Pedro Luis Moreno
    Rio de Janeiro
    June 29, 2013, 11:37 pm

    Audaciosamente indo em busca de nós mesmos !!!

  27. Brilliant
    June 29, 2013, 11:27 pm

    I wished some people I know would have travelled on these ‘human made objects’

  28. Dave D'Amour
    Boyne City
    June 29, 2013, 11:02 pm

    I will go for human exploration. What’s 33 years really? It’s a one way ticket but why not? Is that the true question? Why??? Why not??

  29. adam
    Indonesia
    June 29, 2013, 10:32 pm

    i wonder what coming up next in next years if voyager get out from our solar system..

  30. Mujtaba
    NY
    June 29, 2013, 9:24 pm

    Amazing! Go Voyager go, I would love to see whats beyond the gateway in the main time I am thinking about the scientists who contributed and made Voyager 1. We need to explore in that direction too.

  31. jennifer
    Australia
    June 29, 2013, 9:21 pm

    What is Voyager (s) powered by to travel this distance and at that speed? Are they programmed to return to Earth and when?

    • Andrew Fazekas
      June 30, 2013, 11:10 am

      The Voyager spacecrafts get their electrical power through three Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs). Radioactive decay of plutonium oxide pellets releases heat which is turned into electricity – generating about 300 watts to power onboard instruments. Their current high speeds were attained by a series of gravity assists (sling-shot effect) from gas giant planets they encountered back in the 1980’s.

      Neither Voyager will ever return to Earth – heading out in different directions of the galaxy. Voyager one will pass within 1.6 light years of star Gliese 445 in about 40,000 years while Voyager 2 is heading in the general direction of the bright star Sirius, but will get only 4 light years from it in about 300,000 years or so.

  32. So Beit
    Philippines
    June 29, 2013, 9:02 pm

    “When it does come out on the other side, it will make history by becoming the first human-made object to leave the solar system and enter the realm of the stars and the rest of the Milky Way.”

    This may not be correct. The Golden Record exited the Solar System years ago.

  33. Haris
    New York
    June 29, 2013, 7:59 pm

    I cant believe it’s been 36 years.. Stuarts right, next time make the fly much faster. I don’t think that should be a problem considering the technological advances we have made since then.. we will never stop evolving unless we go extinct, we own the universe as far as I can see it.. we need more space travel.. very interesting.. I’m happy to hear Voyager 1 is still going at it.

  34. edwin welch
    Elbridge NY
    June 29, 2013, 6:18 pm

    I love absolutely everything that has to do with our solar system. Its amazing what the solar system and even the world holds. I cant wait to see whats beyond our solar system if anything.

  35. Aaron_PK
    United States
    June 29, 2013, 5:23 pm

    Great to see such an old piece of technology still being used to explore something so interesting. I would suggest a probe specifically built for such ventures next time.

  36. Johnny
    Canada
    June 29, 2013, 4:56 pm

    So does my spelling error: Should be “acts”, not act… :-)

  37. Johnny
    Canada
    June 29, 2013, 4:54 pm

    Minor point, but the writer needs to learn the application of the word it’s vs its. The misuse of this act like a speed bump when reading.

    Regards!

  38. Richard
    VANCOUVER
    June 29, 2013, 12:46 pm

    Can these probes still be redirected? If so why not steer them to our nearest stars IE alpha centria.would look a lot different from out there.

  39. Craig Ayres-Sevier
    United States
    June 28, 2013, 11:56 am

    Wait. “…That go supernova?” Grammar like that in National Geographic (third paragraph, last sentence)? Did the writer take an English class?

  40. Stuart
    Sydney
    June 28, 2013, 6:50 am

    Wow. An outstanding example of far-sighted science. The Voyager missions are amazing. Though, next time fly much faster, please.

  41. Filson Figg
    United States
    June 27, 2013, 10:17 pm

    This news story is almost one year out of date, and provides no new information on the subject that was not available at that time. The Voyager is close. The Voyager is still close. Such regurgitated journalism tells me the editor/writer is lazy, lazy, lazy. National Geographic must be cannibalizing its archives. Shameful.

  42. Barry Soetoro
    June 27, 2013, 10:02 pm

    meh.

    Now, who’s got the blow?