Voyager 2 Has Left the (Interplanetary) Building

The NASA probe was launched in 1977 and has now joined its twin, Voyager 1, to begin a new chapter of interstellar discovery

Both Voyager 1 and 2 are sampling particles from the interstellar medium, becoming humanity’s furthest-flung missions into deep space [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Carolyn Porco, planetary scientist and lead of the NASA Cassini mission imaging team, probably said it best:

Voyager 1 made us an interstellar species; 6 yrs later, Voyager 2 makes it look easy. While these are historic, soul-stirring achievements, I am most happy right now that Ed Stone, the best Project Scientist who ever lived, lived to see this moment. 

via Twitter

It can be easy to lump today’s announcement about Voyager 2 entering interstellar space as “simply” another magnificent science achievement for NASA — but that would be too narrow; the Voyager spacecraft have become so much more. They represent humanity at our best; our will to explore, our need to push boundaries, our excitement for expanding the human experience far beyond terrestrial shores. They also act as a means to understand the sheer scale of our solar system. And what better way to measure that scale than with a human life. 

Ed Stone started working on the Voyager Program in 1972 as a project scientist. Now, at 82 years old, he’s still working on the Voyagers nearly half a century later as they continue to send back data from the frontier beyond our solar system. When we start measuring space missions in half-centuries, or missions that have lasted entire careers, it becomes clear how far we’ve come. Not only does NASA build really tough space robots that surpass expectations routinely, returning new discoveries and revelations about the universe that surrounds us, the Voyagers have become a monument to the essence of being human, something with which Stone would probably agree.

Although most of the instruments aboard the Voyagers are no longer functional, both missions are still returning data from the shores of the interstellar ocean and, on Nov. 5, mission controllers noticed that one of Voyager 2’s instruments, the Plasma Science Experiment (PSE), had detected a rapid change in its surrounding environment. Used to being immersed the comparatively warm and tenuous solar wind flowing past it, its plasma measurements detected a change. The spacecraft had passed into a region of space where the plasma was now denser and cooler. Three other particle experiments also detected a dramatic change; solar wind particle counts were down, but cosmic ray counts precipitously increased. Voyager 1’s PSE failed in 1980, so couldn’t measure this boundary when it entered interstellar space in 2012, so Voyager 2 is adding more detail about what we can expect happens when a spacecraft travels from the heliosphere, through the heliopause and into interstellar space. 

[NASA/JPL-Caltech]

“There is still a lot to learn about the region of interstellar space immediately beyond the heliopause,” said Stone in a NASA statement.

The heliosphere can be imagined as a vast magnetized bubble that is generated by the Sun. This bubble is inflated by the solar wind, a persistent stream of solar particles that ebb and flow with the Sun’s 11-year cycle. When the Sun is at its most active, the bubble expands; at its least active, it contracts. This dynamic solar sphere of influence affects the flux of high-energy cosmic rays entering the inner solar system, but the physics at this enigmatic boundary is poorly understood. With the help of the Voyagers, however, we’re getting an in-situ feel for the plasma environment at the boundary of where the Sun’s magnetism hits the interstellar medium.

To achieve this, however, we had to rely on two spacecraft that were launched before I was born, in 1977. Voyager 2 is now 11 billion miles away (Voyager 1 is further away, at nearly 14 billion miles) and it took the probe 41 years just to reach our interstellar doorstep. Neither Voyagers have “left” the solar system, not by a long shot. The gravitational boundary of the solar system is thought to lie some 100,000 AU (astronomical units, where one AU is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun), the outermost limit to the Oort Cloud — a region surrounding the solar system that contains countless billions of icy objects, some of which become the long-period comets that intermittently careen through the inner solar system. Voyager 2 is barely 120 AU from Earth, so as you can see, it has a long way to go (probably another 30,000 years) before it really leaves the solar system — despite what the BBC tells us.

So, tonight, as we ponder our existence on this tiny pale blue dot, look up and think of the two space robot pioneers that are still returning valuable data despite being in deep space for over four decades. I hope their legacy lives on well beyond the life of their radioactive generators, and that the next interstellar spacecraft (no pressure, New Horizons) lives as long, if not longer, than the Voyagers.

Read more about today’s news in my article for HowStuffWorks.com.

  

Was Voyager 2 Hijacked by Aliens? No.

The interstellar probes are still operational (NASA)

The Voyager 2 spacecraft has been speeding through the Solar System since 1977 and it’s seen a lot. Besides scooting past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, the probe is now passing through the very limit of the heliosphere (called the heliopause) where it has begun to detect a magnetic field beyond the Solar System. The fact we have man-made objects exiting our star system is something that makes me goosebumpily.

For some perspective, Voyager 2 is so far away from Earth that it takes nearly 13 hours for commands sent from Earth to reach the probe.

After decades of travel, the NASA spacecraft continues to relay data back to us, making it one of the most profound and exciting space missions ever launched. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the aging explorer recently experienced a glitch and the data received by NASA was rather garbled.

Naturally, the conspiracy theorists were out in force quickly pointing their sticky fingers at a possible encounter of the 3rd kind. How these ‘aliens’ found the probe in the first place and reprogrammed the transmission for it to appear corrupt Earth-side is beyond me, but according to an ‘expert’ in Germany, aliens (with an aptitude for reprogramming 30 year old Earth hardware, presumably) were obviously to blame.

One of the alien implication articles came from yet another classic ‘science’ post thrown together by the UK’s Telegraph where they decided to take the word of a UFO expert (obviously a viable source) without any kind of counter-argument from a real expert of real science. (But this is the same publication that brought us other classics such as the skull on Mars and the Doomsday Turkey, so it’s not too surprising.)

As I discussed in a recent CRI English radio debate with Beyond Beijing hosts Chris Gelken and Xu Qinduo, the Voyager-alien implication is beyond funny; an entertaining sideline to poke fun at while NASA worked out what actually went wrong. But the big difference was that Chris and Xu had invited Seth Shostak (from the SETI Institute) and Douglas C. Lin (from the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University) to join the fun. No UFO expert in sight, so the discussion was biased toward science and logic, not crazy talk.

(It was an awesome show by the way, and you can check out the recording via my Discovery News article.)

So what did happen to Voyager 2? It turns out that aliens are not required to answer this cosmic mystery.

On Tuesday, NASA announced that Voyager 2 had flipped one of its bits of memory the wrong way. “A value in a single memory location was changed from a 0 to a 1,” said JPL’s Veronia McGregor.

This glitch was thought to occur in the flight data system, which formats information for transmission to Earth. Should something go wonky in its memory allocation, the stuff it transmits can be turned into gibberish.

Although it isn’t known how this single bit was flipped (and we may never know, as Voyager 2 is an awful long way from home), it sounds very much like a cosmic ray event interfering with the onboard electronics. As cosmic rays are highly energetic charged particles, they can penetrate deep into computer systems, causing an error in calculations.

And this situation isn’t without precedent either. Recently, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was hit by a cosmic ray event, causing the onboard computer to switch to “safe mode.” Also, Voyager 2 is beginning to exit the Sun’s outermost sphere of influence, where turbulence and confused magnetic fields rule. If I had to guess, I’d say — statistically-speaking — the probe might have a greater chance of being hit by the most energetic cosmic rays from deep space.

Just because something “mysterious” happens in space doesn’t mean aliens, the Illuminati or some half-baked doomsday phenomenon caused it. Before jumping to conclusions it would be nice if certain newspapers and UFO experts alike could look at the most likely explanation before pulling the alien card.

Alas, I suspect that some things will never change.