11 December, 2018
It's worth emphasizing that neither of the Voyager probes have physically left the solar system; they have left the heliosphere and entered interstellar space, but they have not escaped our star system, despite what some headlines have indicated.
They have now been operating for 41 years making it NASA's longest-running mission.
The unprecedented space achievement precedes the upcoming Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission scheduled for 2024. Mission operators still can communicate with it at this point, but information - moving at the speed of light - takes about 16.5 hours to reach Earth, according to NASA. The heliosphere can be thought of as a magnetic bubble that's created by the sun, inflated by the solar wind - streams of charged particles that are continuously blowing into the heliosphere from the sun's lower atmosphere.
Nasa has announced that the Voyager 2 probe has entered the very edge of our solar system and zoomed off into uncharted territory. The space agency said Voyager 2 will leave the Oort Cloud, "a collection of small objects that are still under the influence of the Sun's gravity", in approximately 30,000 years, so it is still being influenced by the Sun's gravity to some extent. For reference, an astronomical unit is the equivalent to the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, which is roughly 93 million miles. Voyager 1 reached interstellar space in 2012.
"I think we're all happy and relieved that the Voyager probes have both operated long enough to make it past this milestone", said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
"Both spacecraft are very healthy, if you consider them senior citizens", said Suzanne Dodd, Director for the Interplanetary Network Directorate, as the science results were unveiled at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in the United States capital. Both were launched within weeks of each other in 1977 on missions to fly by Jupiter and Saturn. "This is what we've all been waiting for".
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She said the probes should last at least five, maybe 10 more years, but the cold - the temperature outside the vehicles is about -45 degrees Celsius - and waning power supply will eventually end their usefulness.
While both Voyagers are further than any scientist ever expected for them to reach, they are still in our solar system and will continue to be for some time.
Each probe contains a golden record embedded with snapshots of Earth's sounds, images and messages in the hope that another civilization may someday chance upon it and learn about human civilization.
The little spacecraft is now 11 billion miles from Earth. Originally some scientists speculated our star's winds would peter out in the vicinity of Mars, but the Voyager spacecraft have gradually pushed this boundary far beyond.
Technically, none of the two ships are out of the solar system yet.