Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Voyager Sails to Edge of Solar System

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Voyager Sails to Edge of Solar System

Article excerpt

A century after the Wright brothers briefly piloted an ungainly aircraft 12 feet above the dunes of North Carolina, humanity is reaching another milestone: getting a craft to the threshold between the solar system and interstellar space.

NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft may have already entered the inner portion of that boundary. Scientists this week reported readings that suggest the craft had entered a shock wave typical of this region. The shock wave is generated as the solar wind - charged particles that race off the sun at supersonic speeds - slams into the dust and gas of interstellar space.

Not everyone agrees the craft is there yet. The scientists' conclusion has been challenged by other members of the Voyager team, who suggest that the 27-year-old spacecraft has seen only the foothills, not the mountains of this important frontier.

But the dueling sets of data are welcome, notes Voyager's chief scientist Edward Stone.

"We've been inside the bubble for 40 years," he says, referring to an envelope of solar wind and magnetic fields surrounding the solar system. "Now we're in a totally new region."

What they learn here, researchers say, will give them insights into the factors that determine the extended shape of the solar system and the processes that govern how much cosmic radiation the solar system receives from the rest of the galaxy.

Some scientists also suggest that the information gleaned at the solar system's edge could help improve "space weather" forecasts on Earth.

It could provide more data on the interplay between charged particles from the sun and magnetic fields in and beyond the shock wave, which astronomers call the sun's termination shock. This interplay near Earth generates auroras and can silence radio communications, knock out satellites, and trigger electrical blackouts. It also can expose airliners flying over the polar route to relatively high levels of radiation. …

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