New Discoveries from Old Spacecraft

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In 1977, two space probes were launched from Earth, flung out toward the farthest reaches of our solar system. Now, 43 years later, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are journeying through interstellar space — and they’re still providing new insights.

Voyaging to the Outer Edge

The original mission of the Voyager spacecraft was to study the giant planets in our outer solar system. But across 43 years and three mission extensions, these little probes have gone on to do so much more — most recently crossing out of the heliosphere and providing our first up-close look at interstellar space.

heliosphere

Artist’s conception of the heliosphere (shown in the opposite orientation as in the cover image above). The heliospheric nose is on the left here, and the tail is on the right. Click to enlarge. [NASA/Goddard/Walt Feimer]

What’s the heliosphere? As the solar wind streams from the Sun, it carries magnetic fields outward, inflating a bubble around the solar system that separates us from the surrounding interstellar medium (ISM). As the Sun orbits through the galaxy, the heliosphere is compressed on one side and elongated on the other, forming a blunt “nose” and a streaming “tail”.

Into the Unknown

When Voyagers 1 and 2 were launched, they were sent in slightly different directions — so they’re now exploring two different regions of the interface between the heliosphere and the interstellar medium. In 2012, Voyager 1 crossed the boundary of the heliosphere on one side of the nose, at a distance of ~122 au from the Sun. Voyager 2 followed suit in 2018, crossing the other side of the nose at a distance of ~119 au.

Voyager Antennae

This artist’s impression of one of the Voyager spacecraft shows, on the left, the V-shaped pair of antennae used to detect plasma oscillations. [NASA/JPL]

Now, both spacecraft are traveling through the very local ISM beyond the heliosphere. But despite their distance (the one-way light travel time to Voyager 1 is ~21 hours!), the probes are still reporting back data — including from the Plasma Wave Science (PWS) instrument on each craft, which uses the long, V-shaped pair of antennae to measure oscillations in the surrounding plasma. From these oscillations, we can infer the electron density of the ISM that the Voyager spacecraft are traveling through.

Denser and Denser

In a new publication, University of Iowa scientists William Kurth and Donald Gurnett report the latest PWS measurement from Voyager 2, which indicates that the electron density of the ISM is currently increasing as the probe travels away from the Sun. This discovery is neatly consistent with the data from Voyager 1, which has also been reporting an increasing radial density gradient since crossing the boundary of the heliosphere and entering interstellar space.

electron density

Electron density vs. radial distance from the Sun, as measured by the Voyager 1 (black) and Voyager 2 (red) spacecraft. The radial density gradient in the ISM can be seen in the data from both probes at distances above ~120 au. Click to enlarge. [Kurth & Gurnett 2020]

Voyagers 1 and 2 have trajectories that differ by 67° in latitude and 43° in longitude — so with the new Voyager 2 data published by Kurth and Gurnett, we now have confirmation that the radial density gradient first measured by Voyager 1 is a large-scale feature around the heliospheric nose.

Still More to Learn

What’s causing the gradient? Two theories have been put forward:

  1. the interaction of the solar wind with the very local ISM creates a pile-up region outside of the heliosphere, or
  2. draping of magnetic field lines over the outer boundary of the heliosphere depletes the plasma just inside the heliosphere.

We’ll potentially be able to differentiate between these two models once we have density measurements from even farther out in the ISM — so we’ll have to see if the Voyager probes last long enough to provide them!

Citation

“Observations of a Radial Density Gradient in the Very Local Interstellar Medium by Voyager 2,” W. S. Kurth and D. A. Gurnett 2020 ApJL 900 L1. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/abae58