Voyager goes where no man or man-made vehicle has gone before

NASA makes history as spacecraft leaves the solar system

NASA's Voyager 1 space probe has left the solar system, making it the first human-made object to journey into interstellar space.

Clearing up the recent debate about the whereabouts of the 36-year-old space probe, NASA announced this afternoon that Voyager 1 has traveled 12 billion miles from the sun and for the past year has been flying through the plasma found between stars.

"Now that we have new, key data, we believe this is mankind's historic leap into interstellar space," said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist. "The Voyager team needed time to analyze those observations and make sense of them. But we can now answer the question we've all been asking -- 'Are we there yet?' Yes, we are."

It's official. Voyager 1 has entered interstellar space. (Image: NASA)

John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science, said during today's news conference that this historic journey is the product of 40 years of hard work from the people who first envisioned Voyager to the people who built and now analyze the data it sends back about deep space.

"Voyager, like ancient mariners, is pushing out in new territory," said Grunsfeld. "Someday humans will leave the cocoon of our solar system to explore what is beyond. Voyager will have led the way. This is a story of science, exploration and a narrative of over 40 years of hard work.... That's almost the entire history of the space age."

Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager, noted that craft was able to make the historic journey using 36-year-old technology. She noted that her smartphone today has 240,000 times more memory than Voyager.

Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 with its twin spacecraft, Voyager 2. Both have flown past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. In 1990, they embarked on a mission to enter the interstellar region.

Just this past June, NASA announced that scientists thought Voyager 1, which travels a million miles almost every day, was near the edge of the heliosphere, which is akin to a bubble around the sun. NASA reported at the time that the spacecraft was thought to be so close to the edge of the solar system that it was sending back more information about charged particles from outside the solar system and less from those inside it.

Further analysis convinced scientists that Voyager 1 already was outside the solar system. Actually, they believe it entered interstellar space in August 2012.

The confusion stemmed from the fact that space inside our solar system and outside of it have two different plasmas. Voyager 1 has lost the ability to measure plasma so scientists needed more analysis to figure out what kind of plasma the probe is encountering.

Voyager 2 is currently just 9 billion miles away from the sun, according to NASA. And scientists said today that Voyager 2 may be three years away from entering interstellar space. However, the spacecraft could surprise them and leave the solar system sooner than expected.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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