Until recently, every spacecraft in history had made all of its measurements inside our heliosphere, the magnetic bubble inflated by our Sun. But on Aug. 25, 2012, NASA’s Voyager 1 changed that. As it crossed the heliosphere’s boundary, it became the first human-made object to enter – and measure – interstellar space. Now eight years into its interstellar journey, a close listen of Voyager 1’s data is yielding new insights into what that frontier is like.
If our heliosphere is a ship sailing interstellar waters, Voyager 1 is a life raft just dropped from the deck, determined to survey the currents. For now, any rough waters it feels are mostly from our heliosphere’s wake. But farther out, it will sense the stirrings from sources deeper in the cosmos. Eventually, our heliosphere’s presence will fade from its measurements completely.
“We have some ideas about how far Voyager will need to get to start seeing more pure interstellar waters, so to speak,” said Stella Ocker, a Ph.D. student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and the newest member of the Voyager team. “But we’re not entirely sure when we’ll reach that point.”
Ocker’s new study, published (10 May) in Nature Astronomy, reports what may be the first continuous measurement of the density of material in interstellar space. “This detection offers us a new way to measure the density of interstellar space and opens up a new pathway for us to explore the structure of the very nearby interstellar medium,” Ocker said.
NASA’s complete press release describing the findings is available here.