Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 has spent nearly 36 years traveling to the outskirts of our solar system. NASA scientists say it has now reached the home stretch before exiting the solar system, moving beyond the Sun’s magnetic field (the heliosphere) and into interstellar space. It will be the first human-built object to go this far into the final frontier and beyond.
While originally launched to explore Jupiter and Saturn, in 1990, when its mission was complete, scientists decided to extend the probe’s journey to explore interstellar space. The probe entered the outskirts of the solar system last year, discovering a region that scientists did not know about and have now dubbed the ‘magnetic highway.’ This is the region where the magnetic fields emanating from the sun overlap with magnetic fields of interstellar space, creating a region of supercharged magnetic particles entering and exiting our solar system. How long the Voyager 1 will have to travel on the magnetic highway to exit the heliosphere is unclear, scientists say it could be a few months to a few years. In a release Voyager scientist Ed Stone said:
This strange, last region before interstellar space is coming into focus, thanks to Voyager 1, humankind’s most distant scout. If you looked at the cosmic ray and energetic particle data in isolation, you might think Voyager had reached interstellar space, but the team feels Voyager 1 has not yet gotten there because we are still within the domain of the sun’s magnetic field.
The Voyager 1 is accompanied by a second probe launched at a similar time, the Voyager 2, but the latter is not as far along its journey. Both probes have enough power to last through 2020, so hopefully scientists will get a view of what is beyond our solar system by then.