Voyager leaves the Solar System

Voyager 1, NASA’s 36-year-old space probe, has become humanity’s first interstellar traveller!

As a science geek, I’ve been following its progress for a few years now, trying to keep up with the has-it-hasn’t-it? story.  But there’s widespread agreement now that Voyager 1 has finally left the solar system.

It left the planets behind decades ago, but has now moved beyond the influence of the magnetic fields and particle wind that define the Sun’s sphere influence – it’s a tricky boundary to define, hence the ongoing has-it-hasn’t-it? story.

Voyager 1
The remarkable Voyager 1

The Voyagers are a vividly remembered part of my childhood because they gave us some of the first images of the outer planets and their moons.  Look in a planetary astronomy book published before 1980 and the pages on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune offer pretty slim pickings.

Then look at a post-Voyager book and it’s full of gorgeous, brightly-coloured images of these stupendous gas and ice giants!  And those moons – so many different kinds of moon!  The outer solar system, it transpired, was a dynamic and fascinating place, no two bodies alike.

Yes, it was cold and yes, it was dark, but it was also a varied and dynamic place, far from the static, frozen wasteland we’d expected.

Trying to pass my excitement along to the girls at breakfast this morning, it became one of those recursive conversations where you find yourself having to move back further and further, explaining basic concepts before moving on to what you actually want to say.

“Voyager 1 has left the Solar System and…  What?  What’s the Solar System?  The Solar System is all the planets that go round the Sun, including Earth, where we are and… What?  Yes, all the planets go round the Sun and… No, the Moon goes round the Earth…”  Etc.

I did manage to explain the gravity slingshot method both Voyagers used to complete their Grand Tour and what a triumph of mathematics and navigation that was.



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