American Accomplishment: NASA’s Voyager 1 First To Exit the Solar System


PASADENA, Calif. — By today’s standards, the spacecraft’s technology is laughable: it carries an 8-track tape recorder and computers with one-240,000th the memory of a low-end iPhone. When it left Earth 36 years ago, it was designed as a four-year mission to Saturn, and everything after that was gravy.

But Voyager 1 has become — thrillingly — the Little Spacecraft That Could. On Thursday, scientists declared that it had become the first probe to exit the solar system, a breathtaking achievement that NASA could only fantasize about back when Voyager was launched in 1977, the same year “Star Wars” was released.

“I don’t know if it’s in the same league as landing on the moon, but it’s right up there — ‘Star Trek’ stuff, for sure,” said Donald A. Gurnett, a physics professor at the University of Iowa and the co-author of a paper published Thursday in the journal Science about Voyager’s feat. “I mean, consider the distance. It’s hard even for scientists to comprehend.”

Even among planetary scientists, who tend to dream large, the idea that something they built could travel beyond the Sun’s empire and keep grinding away is impressive. Plenty of telescopes gaze at the far parts of the Milky Way, but Voyager 1 can now touch and feel the cold, unexplored region in between the stars and send back detailed dispatches about conditions there. It takes 17 hours and 22 minutes for Voyager’s signals to reach NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory here.

“This is historic stuff, a bit like the first exploration of Earth, and we had to look at the data very, very carefully,” said Edward C. Stone, 77, NASA’s top Voyager expert, who has been working on the project since 1972. He said he was excited about what comes next. “It’s now the start of a whole new mission,” he said.

The lonely probe, which is 11.7 billion miles from Earth and hurtling away at 38,000 miles per hour, has long been on the cusp, treading a boundary between the bubble of hot, energetic particles around the solar system and the dark region beyond. There, in interstellar space, the plasma, or ionized gas, is noticeably denser.

Dr. Gurnett and his team have spent the past few months analyzing their data, trying to nail down whether what they were seeing was solar plasma or the plasma of interstellar space. Now they are certain it was the latter, and have even pinpointed a date for the crossing: Aug. 25, 2012.

At a news conference on Thursday, NASA scientists were a bit vague about what they hope to get from Voyager 1 from now on. The answer, to some extent, depends on what instruments continue to function as the power supply dwindles. Dr. Stone expects Voyager 1 to keep sending back data — with a 23-watt transmitter, about the equivalent of a refrigerator light bulb — until roughly 2025.

One hope is that Voyager 1’s position will allow scientists to more accurately study galactic cosmic rays, which are high-energy particles that originate outside the solar system. They would use the information to make judgments about what interstellar space is like at even greater distances from Earth.

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