Mission into the unknown: Voyager probes celebrate 45 years in space

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After this final planetary flyby, the twins turned their attention to finding the very edge of the solar system. In December 2004, magnetic data indicated that Voyager 1 had possibly passed the ‘termination shock’, where the solar wind slows from millions of miles per hour to 250,000 miles per hour (400,000 km/h) in response to external pressures from interstellar plasma. Later, the team declared that, at 8.7 billion miles from the Sun, Voyager 1 had entered the heliosheath, the region beyond the termination shock. Voyager 2 entered this region in August 2007.

By August 2012, following an uptick in galactic cosmic ray measurements, Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause, where pressures from the solar wind and interstellar plasma fall into equilibrium. At that point, the probe was about 11 billion miles (18 billion km) from Earth. Voyager 2 followed suit in November 2018.

“We can now answer the question we’ve all been asking,” said Voyager Project Scientist Ed Stone at a press conference called to announce the discovery. “Are we there yet? Yes, we are!”

Forty-five years on, Voyager 1 is 14.6 billion miles (23.5 billion km) and Voyager 2 about 12 billion miles (19.3 billion km) away from home, zipping outbound at over 38,000 miles per hour (61,000 km/hr) and 34,000 miles per hour (55,000 km/hr) respectively. One-way radio traffic extends to just under 22 hours for Voyager 1 and 18 hours for Voyager 2. Power levels are so low that only half of their instruments kept on. Over the years, scientists have been convening to discuss how best to keep the spacecraft running for as long as possible, shutting down systems as needed. The team hopes the pair might remain functional though 2025, but no one knows for sure.


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Ben Evans

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