Published: Thu, December 13, 2018
Science | By Patricia Jimenez

NASA's Voyager 2 Probe Travels Beyond Heliosphere in Longest Running Mission

NASA's Voyager 2 Probe Travels Beyond Heliosphere in Longest Running Mission

"This is what we've all been waiting for". "Now we're looking forward to what we'll be able to learn from having both probes outside the heliopause".

Both spacecraft are still in regular contact with NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) ground stations, including Australia.

The Plasma Science Experiment on Voyager 2, filled predominantly with plasma flowing out from our Sun until recently, observed a steep decline in the speed of the solar wind particles on November 5 and no solar wind flow afterwards.

"Inside the bubble, most of the material has come from our sun and the magnetic field has come from our sun", Voyager project scientist Ed Stone explained in a video provided by NASA. In an historic feat for the mission, Voyager 2's plasma instrument, developed at MIT in the 1970s, is set to make the first direct measurements of the interstellar plasma.

Did the the team plan to explore beyond the Solar System?

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"It's the same way as a ship cutting through water creates a bow shock wave around it".

"We are the only facilities in the world that can link communications with the Voyager 2 spacecraft". Voyager 2 has already logged more than 18.5 billion miles on its interstellar trip going 34,191 mph.

The spacecraft, which launched August 20, 1977, at a cost of $895 million, was primarily created to study the outer planets, notably Jupiter and Saturn. Both were designed as five-year missions to study Jupiter and Saturn up close, and when those were successful, flybys were added for Uranus and Neptune.

This was because the planned route for Voyager 2 was significantly longer, with it being set on a flyby course with numerous outer planets, revealing the first close-ups and important scientific data on planets such as Saturn, Neptune and Uranus.

But until then, long may the explorations continue. Called the heliopause, this boundary is where the tenuous, hot solar wind meets the cold, dense interstellar medium.

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"The influence of our Sun extends much further out than where the Voyager spacecraft are". He is mindful that the Nasa probes still have to pass through the Oort cloud where there are comets gravitationally bound to the Sun, albeit very loosely. NASA suspects it will take some 30,000 years for the Voyagers to travel beyond the Oort Cloud, and enter farther into uncharted territory.

Stone said that Voyager 2 is headed in a different direction, and six years later, the sun is at a different point in its 11-year cycle. A similar tool on Voyager 1 stopped working in 1980, before it left the heliosphere, officials said. It's even possible the Voyagers will outlive the solar system, surviving long after the sun's death sculpts our neighbourhood into a dramatically different place.

Besides passing the interstellar milestone, Voyager 2 is also NASA's longest running mission.

"So if there's no one listening that data is lost forever", Mr Nagle said.

Ms Dodd said: "It would be super-exciting to have a 50-year mission still operating". "So we have to make a lot of trades, particularly with Voyager 2, between power and thermal", she said.

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"That's an incredible journey for this wonderful little ... spacecraft". "Those decisions will be made with getting the most science value back".

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