Voyager 1 has come across an unexpected region of the solar system – a “magnetic superhighway”. Credit: NASA

Voyager 1 is leaving the solar system, but the journey continues

December 14, 2012 by Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

At 18.5 billion kilometres from Earth, the Voyager 1 space probe is the most distant human-made object ever to leave our planet.

And now the spacecraft, which was launched in September 1977, has discovered a new region at the edge of our solar system.

Voyager 1 is now entering what space scientists think is the final region of the “heliosphere” – the bubble of charged particles the sun blows around itself – before it reaches interstellar space.

For a spacecraft that’s now in the darkest reaches of the solar system, it’s easy to forget its mission is really all about the sun.

On Earth, we are at the mercy of solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and the vast amounts of electromagnetic energy and particles those phenomena fling our way. We can’t see these particles, but they can take out power grids and exposed satellites.

There are several missions close to the sun, including NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which is studying the dynamics of the sun, 36,000km from Earth. Questions of interest include: where does the sun’s energy come from? And how is it stored and released in the sun’s atmosphere?

Voyager 1 is at the other end of the solar system, where the solar wind starts to meet with particles and magnetic fields from outside the solar system. And it seems that the interaction is more complex than we could have predicted.

Read more: Voyager 1 is leaving the solar system, but the journey continues —

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