NASA denies reports its Voyager spacecraft has left the solar system

NASA says Voyager 1 is close to interstellar space but hasn’t made it yet

The event certainly would be momentous for the space exploration world - the first spacecraft to actually leave our solar system - but NASA says despites reports to the contrary its Voyager 1 has not left our realm -- just yet that is. 

"The Voyager team is aware of reports today that NASA's Voyager 1 has left the solar system," said Edward Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. "It is the consensus of the Voyager science team that Voyager 1 has not yet left the solar system or reached interstellar space. In December 2012, the Voyager science team reported that Voyager 1 is within a new region called 'the magnetic highway' where energetic particles changed dramatically. A change in the direction of the magnetic field is the last critical indicator of reaching interstellar space, and that change of direction has not yet been observed."

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The reports come from research published online in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (GRL).  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 the 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 acknowledges there is an on-going debate about the probe's status.

NASA said from January 2009 to January 2012, there had been a gradual increase of about 25% in the amount of galactic cosmic rays Voyager was encountering but beginning on May 7, 2012 the cosmic ray hits have increased five percent in a week and nine percent in a month, NASA said.

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"The latest data indicate that we are clearly in a new region where things are changing more quickly. It is very exciting. We are approaching the solar system's frontier," said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist at the California Institute of Technology said at the time. "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."

From NASA last summer: "This marked increase is one of a triad of data sets which need to make significant swings of the needle to indicate a new era in space exploration. The second important measure from the spacecraft's two telescopes is the intensity of energetic particles generated inside the heliosphere, the bubble of charged particles the sun blows around itself. While there has been a slow decline in the measurements of these energetic particles, they have not dropped off precipitously, which could be expected when Voyager breaks through the solar boundary. The final data set that Voyager scientists believe will reveal a major change is the measurement in the direction of the magnetic field lines surrounding the spacecraft. While Voyager is still within the heliosphere, these field lines run east-west. When it passes into interstellar space, the team expects Voyager will find that the magnetic field lines orient in a more north-south direction. Such analysis will take weeks, and the Voyager team is currently crunching the numbers of its latest data set."

Last June, NASA said that the boundary between interstellar space and the bubble of charged particles the sun blows around itself is likely between 10 and 14 billion miles (16 to 23 billion kilometers) from the sun, with a best estimate of approximately 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers). Since Voyager 1 is has crossed that threshold it could cross into interstellar space at any time.

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