The Voyager 1 spacecraft launched in 1977 on a mission to Jupiter and Saturn. Since then it has given us some of our first detailed photos of both of those planets. It also passed by Uranus and Neptune as well taking some gorgeous photos as well. And, as it passed by them, photographing them and taking scientific readings, it just kept going.
There’s not a clear consensus in the scientific community whether Voyager has actually left the solar system or not. The problem with figuring it out for sure is that no one really knows what the “end of the solar system” is supposed to look like since Voyager is in uncharted territory.
But now Marc Swisdak, a physicist at the University of Maryland, says the spacecraft may have already left. “Late July 2012 is when we think it [left],” Swisdak says.
How did we miss that? As it turns out, it wasn’t entirely our fault. Researchers thought the solar system was surrounded by a clearly marked magnetic field bubble.
“There’s one at the Earth, there’s one at Jupiter, Saturn, many planets have them. And so just by analogy we were expecting there to be something like that for the solar system,” Swisdak says.
Scientists were waiting for Voyager to cross over the magnetic edge of our solar system and into the magnetic field of interstellar space. But in a paper in the September issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, Swisdak and his colleagues say the magnetic fields may blend together. And so in July 2012, when Voyager crossed from the solar system into deep space, “Voyager just kept cruising along,” Swisdak says. All they saw was a change in the field’s direction.
Still, Ed Stone, Voyager’s chief engineer, doesn’t think it’s left the solar system yet. He thinks that there is a bubble and until we see a clear change in the magnetic field, Voyager is still at the outer edge of our solar system.
“I think that there is a very good chance before we run out of electrical power that we will be demonstrably in interstellar space,” he says.
Either way Voyager is going to keep going and it will either either see, as Stone believes, demonstrative proof that we have actually left the solar system or Voyager’s power will run at and…we won’t.
Do you think Voyager 1 has left the solar system?