Voyager 1 appears to have at long last left our solar system and entered interstellar space, says a University of Maryland-led team of researchers.
"It's a somewhat controversial view, but we think Voyager has finally left the Solar System, and is truly beginning its travels through the Milky Way," says UMD research scientist Marc Swisdak, lead author of a new paper published online this week in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Swisdak and fellow plasma physicists James F. Drake, also of the University of Maryland, and Merav Opher of Boston University have constructed a model of the outer edge of the Solar System that fits recent observations, both expected and unexpected.
Their model indicates Voyager 1 actually entered interstellar space a little more than a year ago, a finding directly counter to recent papers by NASA and other scientists suggesting the spacecraft was still in a fuzzily-defined transition zone between the Sun's sphere of influence and the rest of the galaxy.
But why the controversy?
At issue is what the boundary-crossing should look like to Earth-bound observers 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometres) away. The Sun's envelope, known as the heliosphere, is relatively well-understood as the region of space dominated by the magnetic field and charged particles emanating from our star. The heliopause transition zone is both of unknown structure and location. According to conventional wisdom, we'll know we've passed through this mysterious boundary when we stop seeing solar particles and start seeing galactic particles, and we also detect a change in the prevailing direction of the local magnetic field.
In a NASA statement, Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist and a professor of physics of the California Institute of Technology, says, in part, "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 [of Swisdak and colleagues] 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."
"This is the only comprehensive study to date of the visual appearance of the large, massive galaxies that existed so far back in time," says co-author Arjen van der Wel of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. "The galaxies look remarkably mature, which is not predicted by galaxy formation models to be the case that early on in the history of the Universe."