Voyager Spacecraft to Breach Boundary of Solar System and Enter True Outer Space

By Chelsea Whyte on June 15, 2012 7:35 PM EDT

voyager spacecraft
The Voyager spacecraft will soon reach the edge of our solar system and cross the threshold into outer space. (Photo: NASA)

Thirty-five years after it was launched, a small probe named Voyager I has reached the edge of the solar system. After exploring the giant outer planets of our solar system, Voyager I and its sister craft, Voyager 2, will soon cross the final frontier into true 'outer' space.

The aging spacecraft is powered by plutonium and has traveled at about 10.5 miles per second to reach its current position about 11 billion miles from the Sun. Voyager has been transmitting data the entire time, though at this point, it takes over 16 hours for NASA to receive information from the probe.

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Scientists at NASA know that Voyager is nearing the boundary of our solar system that separates it from interstellar space. No other spaceship has passed beyond that edge. Information sent back from the craft shows a sharp increase in charged particles bombarding the ship from exploding stars that live beyond the border of the solar system.

"Voyager scientists looking at this rapid rise draw closer to an inevitable but historic conclusion - that humanity's first emissary to interstellar space is on the edge of our solar system," NASA said in a statement.

Each Voyager craft carries with it a message for any life forms they may encounter. Aboard the crafts are a phonograph record and 12-inch gold-plated copper disks with sounds and images from Earth selected by a committee led by the famous space scientist Carl Sagan.

The exact position of the edge of the solar system is unknown, but based on the readings from Voyager, NASA scientists know the craft is entering uncharted territory.  

They expect three types of data to tell them when Voyager has crossed the threshold into outer space. Cosmic rays entering the probe's high-energy telescopes will increase, and over the past three years NASA has already seen a jump in those numbers. The intensity of the particles coming from our Sun will decrease. Though these are on the decline already, scientists at NASA expect a marked drop off in their count once Voyager passes out of the solar system. And finally, a change in the magnetic field influencing the ship - from east-west to north-south - will indicate the ship's reorientation as it breaks into interstellar space.

"The laws of physics say that someday Voyager will become the first human-made object to enter interstellar space, but we still do not know exactly when that someday will be," said Stone, according to Reuters. "The latest data indicate that we are clearly in a new region where things are changing more quickly. It is very exciting. We are approaching the solar system's frontier."

The power sources aboard Voyager 1 and 2 will stop generating electricity in 10 to 15 years, reports BBC News. At that point, they will no longer be able to communicate with NASA, but will soar on into the Milky way as potential 'silent ambassadors' for Earthlings. 

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