Yesterday, the American Geophysical Union mistakenly announced that the Voyager I spacecraft had become the first manmade object to cross the boundary between the edge of our solar system and the vastness of interstellar space, saying in a news release, “Voyager 1 has left the solar system.”
NASA and Caltech scientists were quick to refute the statement, and the AGU quickly corrected the language they’d used, confessing that they were hoping to create a headline that would attract the interest of reporters and general audiences. Launched in September of 1977 with a goal of studying the outer solar system and interstellar medium, Voyager has contributed greatly to our understanding of the planets of our solar system, shooting beautiful photos of Jupiter and Saturn that awed the masses in 1979 and 1980.
It’s now hurtling toward open space, it’s usefulness largely a thing of the past, though this recent controversy has us thinking again about it’s 35-year journey, so maybe it still has a thing or two to teach us.
Is Voyager I still making meaningful contributions to our understanding of space? Is the edge of our solar system a defined boundary like the strata of Earth’s atmosphere? What are we learning about the boundary between our solar system and interstellar space?
Edward Stone, Caltech Voyager project scientist and physics professor, former director of the Jet Propulsion Labratory