NASA’s Voyager 1 Has Boldly Gone Into Interstellar Space, Or Has It? New Study Sparks Debate

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Voyager 1 has racked up billions of miles on the odometer over more than 30 years of space exploration. Wikimedia Commons/NASA

A new study states the Voyager 1 spacecraft has already reached interstellar space, traveling further than any other man-made object has. The model used to reach that conclusion is a new one that has not been used by other researchers, sparking some debate about whether or not the spacecraft has, in fact, traveled into interstellar space.

The new study from the University of Maryland, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, makes a bold claim stating Voyager 1 has already reached interstellar space, a historic milestone. The spacecraft has already traveled further than any other man-made object but NASA does not believe it has left our solar system just yet.

Most recently, NASA states Voyager 1 has reached the edge of the “solar bubble,” entering the magnetic highway that signals the end of the heliosphere, the area of sun’s influence that surrounds the system. While Voyager 1 is close to the edge of our solar system the heliosphere extends well beyond that, at least 8 billion miles past the last planet, reports NASA. The space agency believes it could take Voyager 1 months or years to go beyond the heliosphere and into interstellar space.

The research, led by Marc Swisdak, states that not only has Voyager 1 entered into interstellar space, it did so over a year ago. “It's a somewhat controversial view, but we think Voyager has finally left the Solar System, and is truly beginning its travels through the Milky Way,” said Swisdak in a statement.

The main conflict between Swisdak’s conclusion and NASA’s is the “heliopause transition zone” which has an unknown shape and the only way researchers can be certain they are beyond the heliosphere is to no longer find solar particles. Researchers believe we will know if Voyager 1 has reached interstellar space by finding galactic particles, which the spacecraft has, and a change in the direction of the magnetic field, which has not happened. According to the university, NASA determined that Voyager 1 must still be within the heliosphere in a zone known as the “heliosheath depletion region.”

Swisdak disagrees, claiming the transition zone is a layered magnetic area that is porous, a result of magnetic reconnection, where opposing magnetic fields break apart and reform, a process at the heart of solar flares and other solar activity. Magnetic reconnection could create “magnetic islands” and could explain the drop in solar particles and increase of galactic particles without any change in magnetic field direction.

In response to Swisdak’s findings, NASA has issued a statement. According to Ed Stone, NASA Voyager project scientist: In describing on a fine scale how magnetic field lines from the sun and magnetic field lines from interstellar space can connect to each other, they conclude Voyager 1 has been detecting the interstellar magnetic field since July 27, 2012. Their model would mean that the interstellar magnetic field direction is the same as that which originates from our sun. Other models envision the interstellar magnetic field draped around our solar bubble and predict that the direction of the interstellar magnetic field is different from the solar magnetic field inside. By that interpretation, Voyager 1 would still be inside our solar bubble.The fine-scale magnetic connection model will become part of the discussion among scientists as they try to reconcile what may be happening on a fine scale with what happens on a larger scale. The Voyager 1 spacecraft is exploring a region no spacecraft has ever been to before. We will continue to look for any further developments over the coming months and years as Voyager explores an uncharted frontier.

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