“Space: The final frontier . . . To boldly go where no man has gone before.” (1) Every space nerd and Sci-fi junky can immediately recognize those words. Since 1966, kids and adults dreamed of traversing interstellar space. This dream was thought to be nearly impossible until NASA landed on the Moon.
Yet traveling to the Moon and traveling between the stars are two entirely different missions. Nevertheless, just as NASA was the first to put a man on the Moon, the space agency is now first to reach interstellar space; even if it is through proxy via the Voyager 1 unmanned spacecraft.
Earlier this month (September 12, 2013), NASA announced that the Voyager 1 is the first man-made object to enter interstellar space. Voyager 1, which is part of a team or probes launched in 1977, has made it outside of our solar system in an area outside of what scientists call the solar bubble.
In a press release, NASA described the data received:
“New and unexpected data indicate Voyager 1 has been traveling for about one year through plasma, or ionized gas, present in the space between stars.” (2)
This puts Voyager 1 roughly 12 billion miles from our sun. This recent data marks the official milestone of reaching interstellar space and quells any of the previous confusion about Voyager 1’s position.
An Important Space Exploration Milestone
Since Voyager 1 entered a transitional region outside of the solar system, but yet is still somewhat affected by the Sun, it was difficult for scientists to officially state that the probe had made it into interstellar space. According to Voyager Project Scientist Ed Stone of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, “We have been cautious because we’re dealing with one of the most important milestones in the history of exploration. Only now do we have the data — and the analysis — we needed.” (3)
The data that NASA needed to confirm that the probe broke out of the solar bubble, scientifically known as the heliosphere, was the presence of plasma. However, NASA was not even sure if they would be able to detect the plasma with Voyager 1’s instruments since the probe’s plasma sensor was damaged and stopped functioning in 1980.
Therefore, NASA must use Voyager 1’s plasma wave instrument, which can measure the vibrations of plasma. Plasma vibrations can provide insight into how dense the plasma is surrounding the probe.
Plasma Data Arrives Back at Earth
NASA’s wishes were granted when Voyager 1 began sending plasma data back to Earth. It appears that the probe has been detecting plasma for nearly a year.
When this data was confirmed, it was met with cheers by the Voyager team. Don Gurnett, a plasma wave researcher described the team’s reaction:
“We literally jumped out of our seats when we saw these oscillations in our data — they showed us the spacecraft was in an entirely new region, comparable to what was expected in interstellar space, and totally different than in the solar bubble.” (2)
Voyager 1 has truly gone where no man, or man-made machine, has gone before and it is expected that it will go even farther. NASA expects the probe to remain active for another 12 years.
In that time, Voyager 1 should provide researchers a wealth of information about interstellar space. By 2025, the expected date of when Voyager will no longer be able to transmit data, the probe will be in continual operation for nearly 50 years.
When the project began, interstellar space travel almost sounded like a work of science fiction; however, now it has become science fact and one more step towards a reality that could very well mirror the Star Trek series. Only time will tell what Voyager 1 will discover in interstellar space.