JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena) reported this week that Voyager 2 is at the edge of our solar system, riding the tides of the solar winds, and while there, scientist discovered that our solar system’s outermost edges are uneven, “squashed” and “dented” if you will. The solar wind pushes out through space, forming a bubble that extends past the orbit of Pluto. This bubble is called the heliosphere, the edge of it is called the heliosheath*, an area of space where “the solar wind runs up against the thin gas between the stars.” Voyager 2 passed through the heliosheath, also called the termination shock (great name for a band) multiple times, revealing our system’s rough edges. “Where Voyager 2 made its crossing, the bubble is pushed in closer to the sun by the local interstellar magnetic field.” The solar wind pushes out and the stars are pushing back.
This uneven-ness is a bit of a surprise as Voyager I had passed through the termination shock previously. JPL explains:
Even though Voyager 2 is the second spacecraft to cross the shock, it is scientifically exciting for a couple of reasons. The Voyager 2 spacecraft has a working Plasma Science instrument that can directly measure the velocity, density and temperature of the solar wind. This instrument is no longer working on Voyager 1 and estimates of the solar wind speed had to be made indirectly. Secondly, Voyager 1 may have had only a single shock crossing and it happened during a data gap. But Voyager 2 had at least five shock crossings over a couple of days (the shock “sloshes” back and forth like surf on a beach, allowing multiple crossings) and three of them are clearly in the data.
The Voyager spacecraft are the only “local” observers of this exciting region in space and will be there for years to come, hopefully sending back even more unexpected news from beyond our solar system.
More images and a lot more about these intrepid Voyagers and how they are prepared to communicate with any alien life form they meet out there. Click through the blogo-sheath to read on.
All Voyager I and II images from the Voyager section of the NASA/JPL website.
Here are some beautiful trippy graphics from JPL’s site about the heliosphere, the heliopause and our Voyagers I and II (I highly recommend clicking them all for maximum trip factor):
The Voyagers** were built by JPL in Pasadena in the 70’s and both launched in 1977 from Cape Canaveral. Voyager II went first in August, followed by Voyager I in September. The original plan was this:
The Voyager mission was designed to take advantage of a rare geometric arrangement of the outer planets in the late 1970s and the 1980s which allowed for a four-planet tour for a minimum of propellant and trip time. This layout of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, which occurs about every 175 years, allows a spacecraft on a particular flight path to swing from one planet to the next without the need for large onboard propulsion systems.
It was a five year mission (Let’s not get into any Star Trek conspiracies here.) “to conduct closeup studies of Jupiter and Saturn, Saturn’s rings, and the larger moons of the two planets.” That was the plan, but the Voyagers had much bigger ideas. Their original five year mission has now become 30 and could potentially continue on till 2020, all the while sending back amazing, surprising and useful information to the scientists and engineers at JPL.
The Voyagers are not merely data gathering tools. They represent human beings from planet Earth wherever they go. How do they do this? With the Golden Record.
(Click for much more detail of the images on the disk.)
Before the Voyagers, Pioneers 10 and 11 also had plaques with some basic info about where and when they were from in case of any contact with ET. Nasa decided to go bigger with this idea and appointed Carl Sagan to head a committee to choose what would go with Vs I & II and how they would represent humankind and planet earth. From the Golden Record page: “Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, *whales*, and other animals.” (Did you think of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home? I swear there is no connection. Or is there?***) You can look at and listen to many of the images and sounds included on the Golden Record. There are Scenes From Earth, Greetings From Earth in 55 languages, and Music from around the world including, I’m not joking, Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry. (Music is listed only, no audio files.)
Voyager I and Voyager II are like the little spacecraft that could, that can, that still are! I find them inspiring because yes, they are “just” machines, but they are going above and beyond what they were originally built for — something we humans must strive for in our lives.
*JPL should market a brand of condoms with this name.
** I hope someone writes a tv show called “The Voyagers” about brother and sister spacecraft and their adventures through space.
***Click into Space Collective and choose the video called “About Space Collective.” Actually, watch them all.