After 36 years of transmitting data back to the earth from the farthest reaches of space, NASA announced on Thursday hat the well-traveled space probe Voyager I crossed the boundary marking the end of our solar system and ventured into interstellar space.
That makes Voyager the first man-made object to leave the heliosphere, the magnetic boundary that separates the solar system from the rest of our galaxy.
Basically, the probe has ventured further from its home planet than any man or machine (not counting alien vessels). Not bad for a piece of equipment made in 1977, during the early months of the Jimmy Carter presidency and long before cell phones, home-computing and other important technological leaps, like the DVR.
In a Thursday press conference held in Washington, D.C., NASA officials confirmed that Voyager I actually made the transition a year ago. It just took a year to confirm the data.
“Voyager has boldly gone where no probe has gone before, marking one of the most significant technological achievements in the annals of the history of science,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.
Scientists aren’t sure yet what kind of data the intrepid craft will transmit back from interstellar space. One of Voyager’s key sensors that measures plasma density — and could’ve confirmed the interstellar journey much sooner — is broken.
Voyager did, however, capture the ambient sound of interstellar space, heard on Earth for the first time. The noise, which sounds kind of like a high-pitched whistle, is apparently created by a certain density of plasma “ringing” in reaction to a solar flare or other disruption. Although it could pass as a B-movie sci-fi sound effect, listening is eerie and exciting all at once if only because the source is so alien, so far away.
Up next for the little probe that could: more exploration.
“We’re now on the first mission to explore interstellar space,” said Ed Stone, chief scientist of the Voyager mission. “We will now look and learn in detail how the wind which is outside, that came from these other stars, is deflected around the heliosphere.”
The generator on board the craft is expected to last through at least 2025, so Voyager I has several years of data-gathering and deep-space listening ahead. Still, scientists estimate it won’t come close to a star — Gliese 445 — for 40,000 years.
If it happens to bump into any other interstellar nomads in the meantime, Voyager I is prepared. The craft carries a gold-plated audio-visual disc that holds photos and sounds from Earth. The idea is to give any intelligent alien life forms who might find it an idea of who sent the probe into space.
P.S. If “Star Trek” is to be trusted as a predictor of Voyager’s future behavior, we may have reason to worry. In 1979′s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” the fictional Voyager 6 met up with an alien race after being sucked into a black hole, was granted sentience, then came back to earth to meet (and kill) its maker (and the rest of the human race).