In September of 1977, NASA launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Thirty-six years later, Voyager 1 has been confirmed to have left the heliosphere, entering interstellar space. Voyager 1 left the heliosphere in August 2012 as the first human-made object to leave the solar system, carrying the reputation of US science and technology.
The heliosphere is the outermost part of the solar system, named so because it is the farthest region affected by solar forces. The Voyager 1 is moving through the galaxy, but it is no longer affected by the sun. Instead, it is affected by interstellar forces never before studied in this way.
Dr. Thomas Lipinski, an astronomy professor at Winthrop, is currently drawing his students’ attention to the event and its impact on Winthrop. Astronomy students have calculated the time it takes light to reach Voyager 1, how long it takes for radio signals to reach it and the discoveries of the spacecraft (including finding volcanic activity on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons).
“I spent class time, probably too much time, talking about the many discoveries of the Voyager 1 spacecraft, because it had just been in the news,” said Lipinski. “ I also spent time talking about the ‘golden record’ which is on both Voyager spacecraft. This is a gold-plated record that is meant to send greetings from the planet earth to any intelligent species that may come across it,” he explained.
The discoveries of Voyager 1 are not only fascinating, but they provide vital new information to those who study the solar system and now—interstellar space. Voyager 1 is now sending information about the outer boundaries of the sun’s effects, and will soon be sending information about interstellar fields and particles outside the heliosphere.
Powered by radioactive material, Voyager 1 will slowly lose power and stop sending NASA new information. According to Lipinski, “Over the years, various subsystems have been shut down. We think there is enough power to continue running these instruments until about the year 2020. After that, we should be able to communicate with the Voyager 1 for a few more years, but that is all. By 2025, even that simple communication with Earth will go silent forever.”
Voyager 1 leaving the solar system is a historic event that will continue to yield new discoveries and new ideas about the forces and makeup of our galaxy, possibly even shedding more light on the formation or functioning of the place in the universe that allowed the growth and development of human life.
Lipinski sums up the momentous occasion by saying, “in the same way that the first moon landing affects all of us, it’s a milestone. We, the human race, have sent a physical object for the very first time into space between the stars.” And from this moment on, we will learn things about outer space that we have never before known.