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NASA brings stargazers down to earth, disputing Voyager 1 success

Published time: March 20, 2013 19:40
Edited time: March 21, 2013 00:07
Voyager 1.(Photo from nasa.gov)

Voyager 1.(Photo from nasa.gov)

The long-awaited and recently announced departure of NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft from our solar system may have hit a significant roadblock, after NASA urged people not to pop the champagne just yet, on the back of conflicting evidence.

A new study recently suggested that the exploratory spacecraft launched by NASA some 35-and-a-half years ago has gone beyond the heliosphere – our corner of space dominated by the influence of the Sun - and has experienced massive changes in radiation levels.

However, the US space agency said on Wednesday that it’s too early to celebrate, describing the current report as “premature and incorrect” in a statement to AFP.

The initial study on cosmic rays and radiation was published in the scientific journal, Geophysical Research Letters, purporting that the spacecraft left our solar system in August of 2012. The 845 kg space probe has been experiencing drastic changes in radiation levels since supposedly leaving the heliosphere, scientists say. Such changes in levels of cosmic radiation have not been witnessed since the spacecraft’s launch on August 25th 1977, and are consistent with galactic rays outside of our sun’s neighborhood.

“Within just a few days, the heliospheric intensity of trapped radiation decreased, and the cosmic ray intensity went up as you would expect if it exited the heliosphere,” said Bill Webber, professor emeritus of astronomy at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

This NASA file image shows Jupiter (REAR) and its four planet-size moons, called the Galilean satellites, were photographed in early March 1979 by Voyager 1 and assembled into this collage.(AFP Photo / NASA)

But while Webber never claimed he knew for sure that the craft had left our solar system entirely, fresh evidence from NASA appears to say with certainty it has not. In December 2012, the US space agency reported that it had reached a new region called the ‘magnetic highway’, but that is still not outside our solar system, although quite close.

Edward Stone, a project scientist with the Voyager team, said that “a change in the direction of the magnetic field is the last critical indicator of reaching interstellar space and that change of direction has not yet been observed.”

Voyager 1 and its brother Voyager 2 took off on a trip to explore Saturn, Jupiter and bodies outside our solar system in 1977. Voyager 1’s mission was over in November 1980, when it had finished exploring the two aforementioned planets and their moons. But with 18 billion kilometers (11 billion miles) traveled, scientists are holding their breath for what awaits the human race outside of our cosmic comfort zone. They say we only have about a year or two to wait till the first of the two crafts has made it into interstellar space.

In its 35 years of activity, Voyager 1 is still sending transmissions back to NASA, which makes it the oldest active spacecraft ever built. It takes around 16 hours to send and receive radio signals.

Both the Voyagers are carrying gold-plated phonograph records containing 115 images of life on Earth, various animal sounds, the sounds of weather and nature, as well as greetings in a number of languages, including printed messages from the former US President Jimmy Carter and former UN chief Kurt Waldheim. NASA praises its two prized spacecraft as “the most distant active representatives of humanity and its desire to explore.”