Voyager 1 is now at the edge of the solar system, and the data coming back is surprising astrophysicists. It was generally believed that the transition between the sun’s extended atmosphere and the beginning of interstellar space would be abrupt, but that isn’t proving to be the case:
Voyager 1 has been crusing through these doldrums since April 2010, putting it on the doorstep of the heliopause, the point at which the sun’s atmosphere yields to interstellar space beyond. Indeed, if the new calculations are correct, humanity’s first rudimentary starship – now 34 years into its journey – could break free of the solar system by the end of next year.
The evidence comes from a detector on Voyager that counts the number of protons streaming from the sun as solar wind. By counting the proton hits in all directions, the team can calculate the speed and direction of the solar wind – after adjusting for the spacecraft’s speed of some 38,000 m.p.h.
During the past three years, the wind’s speed has dropped from 93,000 m.p.h. to zip.
“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” says Stamatios Krimigis, a solar physicist and emeritus head of the Space Department at the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., who led the team that conducted the study. “We’re not supposed to be in a wind that isn’t going anywhere.”
So, it’s possible for a “consensus of scientists” to be wrong? Somebody alert Al Gore!
Voyager 1 Fun Fact: Within two weeks the spacecraft will enter an area known as the “heliopause,” which is so distant that by the time Anthony Weiner’s sext messages reach it, New Yorkers will have just re-elected him for yet another term in 2024.