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An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Night Sky

Enjoy the starry night skies
Be a considerate neighbor. Reduce nighttime glare. Shield your outside lights downward. Let the stars light up the night.

October 2013 night sky

—Charlie Christmann

Into the abyss

Nothing man-made has traveled so far from home. As of August 25, 2012, the Voyager 1 spacecraft has officially left the solar system to become mankind’s first interstellar traveler. Now more than 11.6 billion miles away from the sun, it takes a radio signal more than 17 hours to reach Earth. Launched on September 5, 1977, Voyage 1 is the longest continuously operating spacecraft launched by man.

NASA scientists have been debating the strange readings coming from instruments still working on Voyager and trying to guess what they say about the surrounding space. Scientists were studying the magnetic fields, solar wind, and cosmic rays to try to discern just when the solar system boundary breach occurred.

The sun blows out a tenuous stream of particles continuously with the occasional more dense coronal mass ejection. This one million m.p.h. wind fights back the interstellar winds formed by all of the outflows of every star in our vicinity. This outflow also carried the sun’s magnetic field with it, forming a “bubble” around our solar system. This bubble helps deflect some of the nasty cosmic rays, extremely high-energy particles believed to emanate from black holes, away from the planets.

Scientists had expected to see an abrupt shift in the magnetic field direction between our solar bubble and interstellar space. But, attempts to use Voyager’s magnetic field detector have been stymied. Since 2004, Voyager has experienced an increase in the cosmic rays coming from distant sources in the universe. New studies have theorized that the galactic field is actually aligned with our Sun’s. That is why no magnetic shift was ever found.

Since 2004, Voyager 1 has been traveling in a kind of no man’s land within the boundary region where the solar wind and the interstellar winds battle it out for dominance. In the inner portion of this boundary region, the interstellar winds are slowed to a stop while the solar wind is halted at the outer parts of this region.

Voyager 1’s mission continues. Traveling at 38,000 miles per hour, it will take another thirty thousand years to pass through our Oort cloud of icy debris left over from the formation of our solar system. In around forty thousand years, Voyager will pass within 9.5 trillion miles of the star Gliese 445 in the constellation Camelopardalis, which lies 17.6 light-years from Earth. The internal Plutonium powered generator will slowly decline requiring equipment to start shutting down around 2020. Its power exhausted, this robotic ambassador from Earth will fall silent in 2025. All that will remain to communicate to any intelligent life in the cosmos is the golden disk recordings of sounds and images from home.

Voyager 1’s twin probe, Voyager 2, took a different path out of the solar system and is now 9.6 billion miles from the sun. It may leave our solar bubble in four to five years. In about forty thousand years, the Voyager 2 will pass the star Ross 248 in the Andromeda constellation at a distance of 9.7 trillion miles. Then, in 296,000 years, the craft may pass within 25 trillion miles of Sirius.

I wonder who, or what, will be around to know, or even care, what happens to the two Voyager spacecrafts in forty thousand years.
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