SAN FRANCISCO – NASA’s long-lived Voyager 1 spacecraft, which is heading out of the solar system, has reached a “magnetic highway” leading to interstellar space, scientists said on Monday.
The probe, launched 35 years ago to study the outer planets, is now about 11 billion miles (18 billion km) from Earth. At that distance, it takes radio signals travelling at the speed of light 17 hours to reach Earth. Light moves at 186,000 miles (300,000 km) per second).
Voyager 1 will be the first manmade object to leave the solar system.
Scientists believe Voyager 1 is in an area where the magnetic field lines from the sun are connecting with magnetic field lines from interstellar space. The phenomenon is causing highly energetic particles from distant supernova explosions and other cosmic events to zoom inside the solar system, while less-energetic solar particles exit.
“It’s like a highway, letting particles in and out,” lead Voyager scientist Ed Stone told reporters at an American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.
Scientists don’t know how long it will take for the probe to cross the so-called “magnetic highway,” but they believe it is the last layer of a complex boundary between the region of space under the sun’s influence and interstellar space.
“Our best guess is it’s likely just a few months to a couple years away,” Stone said.