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article imageMilestone: Voyager 1 reaches interstellar space

By Paul Wallis     Dec 14, 2010 in Science
Voyager 1 has become the first human artifact to enter interstellar space. Instruments on the spacecraft have registered the solar wind as “zero” for the first time.
To give some idea of the distance, it’s taken 6 years since Voyager 1 crossed the “termination shock” point, the point at which the solar wind slows. This is the end of the heliosphere, the area directly affected by radiation from the sun.
(It’s a bit of a misconception that space is particularly “normal” from one stellar zone to another. All stars are different, and therefore their heliospheres are different. Interstellar space, in turn, is also different, with different properties, and affected by nearby heliospheres and free gas and dust clouds.)
Researchers at California Institute of Technology have stated with a certain profound honesty that they’re still learning from a spacecraft launched in 1977. The first indication that Voyager 1 had entered the “zero zone” was in June, but because the solar wind can fluctuate, the actual status of the solar wind had to be confirmed.
This is a real milestone.
It’s also likely to produce some interesting science, if Voyager 1 can transmit any useful data about the interstellar medium. There’s been speculation for years about the exact nature of interstellar space, and how Voyager responds to conditions in the new zone will be a useful indicator for future exploration of the extrasolar region.
This sort of science isn’t straightforward. Space travel keeps proving that there are new elements in all voyages. There’s no set script for this type of exploration. Everything that happens will be new, and raise new questions.
That’s the way it should be.
Let’s face it, nobody wants a boring universe.
More about Voyager, End heliosphere, Zero solar wind
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