Sometimes there's nothing like a good argument to stir things up. There is one juicy one that has been in the making for over a year now but seems to be getting to a boiling point: Has NASA's Voyager spacecraft left our solar system or not?
Sparking the latest round of debate over the spacecraft is a recently published paper that makes the case that Voyager 1 has already entered interstellar space.
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NASA though for at least the second time this year is disputing the notion saying: The model described in the paper is new and different from other models used so far to explain the data the spacecraft has been sending back from more than 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) away from our Sun.
"Details of a new model have just been published that lead the scientists who created the model to argue that NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft data can be consistent with entering interstellar space in 2012. In describing on a fine scale how magnetic field lines from the Sun and magnetic field lines from interstellar space can connect to each other, they conclude Voyager 1 has been detecting the interstellar magnetic field since July 27, 2012. Their model would mean that the interstellar magnetic field direction is the same as that which originates from our Sun," said NASA's Voyager project scientist, Ed Stone of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in a statement.
"Other models envision the interstellar magnetic field draped around our solar bubble and predict that the direction of the interstellar magnetic field is different from the solar magnetic field inside. By that interpretation, Voyager 1 would still be inside our solar bubble. The fine-scale magnetic connection model will become part of the discussion among scientists as they try to reconcile what may be happening on a fine scale with what happens on a larger scale," Stone said. "The Voyager 1 spacecraft is exploring a region no spacecraft has ever been to before. We will continue to look for any further developments over the coming months and years as Voyager explores an uncharted frontier."
Stone noted earlier this year that "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."
At that time Stone was responding to reports published online in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (GRL) that also suggested Voyager had made this momentous crossing. According to reports the debate on whether or not the craft has left the solar system revolves around what data the system is sending back about its surroundings. How those data are interpreted to be precise.
From a BBC report on that research: "Voyager has been detecting a rise in the number of high-energy particles, or cosmic rays, coming towards it from interstellar space, while at the same time recording a decline in the intensity of energetic particles coming from behind, from our Sun. A big change occurred on 25 August last year, which the GRL paper's authors say was like a "heliocliff". "Within just a few days, the heliospheric intensity of trapped radiation decreased, and the cosmic ray intensity went up as you would expect if it exited the heliosphere," explained Prof Bill Webber from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. Prof Weber acknowledged there was an on-going debate about the probe's status.
A year ago NASA said that the boundary between interstellar space and the bubble of charged particles the sun blows around itself is approximately 11 billion miles. Since Voyager 1 has crossed that threshold it could cross into interstellar space at any time. All will agree that will be a momentous occasion.
Are there other questions NASA should be asking?
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