Voyager 2 is on the Verge of Entering Interstellar Space

Voyager 2 is on the Verge of Entering Interstellar Space

Latest reports reveal that the sibling of Voyager 1 may join its twin anytime now in the interstellar space.

The Voyager 2, launched in 1977, is a space probe designed to study far-away planets. It is the only spacecraft that has visited Uranus and Neptune. Its primary mission was to study Neptune which it completed in 1989. Voyager 2 has been operating for 41 years now and its new mission is to explore ‘outer’ planets. The Voyager spacecraft communicate with Earth using the Deep Space Network. Data between the spacecraft and Earth is transferred at speeds as high as 115 kilobits/sec. Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to have passed near Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The spacecraft studied the atmosphere compositions and took close-up photos of these planets.

The heliosphere is a bubble-like area that encapsulates our entire solar system. The edge of this bubble is called the Heliosheath. The bubble cancels out the external pressure on it as solar wind blows outwards. It is reported that Voyager 2 is currently traversing the Heliosheath. It is expected to return first-ever measurements of the plasma medium present in interstellar space. At a whopping 12 billion miles from the Earth, Voyager 2 is man’s second creation to reach interstellar space. Voyager 1 reached interstellar space before its twin because it had a shorter route. Voyager 1 completed its mission on Jupiter and then sling-shotted itself towards interstellar space. On the other hand, Voyager 2 had taken a detour to carry out its studies of Uranus and Neptune.

The Heliosphere and Heliosheath are not static bodies. They compress and decompress as they get hit by solar particles. It is possible that both spacecraft may be in entirely different areas of the Heliosheath at a single point in time. Voyager Project Scientist Ed Stone said:

“We’re seeing a change in the environment around Voyager 2, there’s no doubt about that. We’re going to learn a lot in the coming months, but we still don’t know when we’ll reach the heliopause. We’re not there yet—that’s one thing I can say with confidence.”

Earth as seen from 6 Billion kilometers away. The last photo of us taken from Voyager 2 Spacecraft. Credit: NASA JPL

Before Voyager 1 exited the Heliosphere in 2012, it experienced the same increase in cosmic radiation that the Voyager 2 is experiencing. Stone expressed his views about that by saying,

“None of us knew, when we launched 40 years ago, that anything would still be working, and continuing on this pioneering journey. The most exciting thing they find in the next five years is likely to be something that we didn’t know was out there to be discovered.”

The Voyager loses 4 watts of power every year as the equipment degrades so the journey gets harder than ever. NASA predicts that the Voyager 2 will continue to function till 2030 after which it will shut down. The spacecraft, however, will continue its journey, floating and completing its orbit of the Milky Way every 225 million years till it gets intercepted by an extraterrestrial body which is highly unlikely but still possible. The authorities at NASA elaborated the situation in the following words:

“The fact that Voyager 2 may be approaching the heliopause six years after Voyager 1 is also relevant because the heliopause moves inward and outward during the sun’s 11-year activity cycle. Solar activity refers to emissions from the sun, including solar flares and eruptions of material called coronal mass ejections. During the 11-year solar cycle, the sun reaches both a maximum and a minimum level of activity.”

Voyager 2 is estimated to be about 6 years behind Voyager 1. Just like its sibling, Voyager 2 will likely experience a “termination shock” as it exits the Heliosheath and collides with the plasma of space.

If Voyager 2 is going to be following the same pattern as its twin, it should exit into interstellar space any day now. We cannot pinpoint Voyager 2’s location but the increase in cosmic rays is a surefire sign of increased speed and distance from our solar system. Each Voyager has a golden vinyl record aboard on which the research and communication from Earth are stored. It also contains data about Earth and its lifeforms. Surprisingly, spoken greetings from the US president, Secretary-General of the United Nations, and many children. Moreover, a collection of music has also been added. It was added in hopes of communicating with extraterrestrial beings no matter how small the chance may be.

Computer Scientist by qualification who loves to read, write, eat, and travel

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