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Voyager 1 Has Left the Solar System!

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Today, it was announced that Voyager 1 has left the solar system for interstellar space.

It’s not the first time the announcement has been made.

In October 2012, it was thought the intrepid probe, first launched in September 1977, had blasted out of the heliosheath and left the solar system—until a couple of months later, when particles weren’t quite acting as scientists thought they should in a region that came to be called the “magnetic highway”—the outer boundary of the heliosphere, where the sun’s magnetic particles and those from interstellar space mingle, not unlike a two-lane highway.

Scientists had thought two things would happen when Voyager officially left the solar system: That the solar winds would fade to nothing (which happened), and that the magnetic fields of the region would change direction marking the end of the sun’s influence. That one didn’t happen.

In recent months some scientists have been reassessing the data and saying “Yes, it might have left the solar system after all.” Now, NASA has confirmed that.

The whole debate was enough of a headache to get a nice ribbing from former JPL employee turned XKCD cartoonist Randall Munroe.

The Future of Interstellar Space Travel

Voyager 1 is now the first craft to officially leave the solar system, pacing along at 38,610 miles per hour. Others are set to follow.

Voyager 1's sister craft, Voyager 2, is not yet beyond the solar system, but is just a few years behind, traveling at a more sluggish crawl of around 35,000 MPH.

Two other probes, Pioneer 10 and 11, will also leave the solar system someday. Pioneer 10 was reported to have left by the New York Times in 1983except it was just past the orbit of Neptune at the time. Pioneer 11 accomplished this feat in 1990. But as the Voyagers have revealed, that is far, far shy of the end of the solar system.

Currently, Voyager 1 is more than 125 times the distance (called an AU, or astronomical unit) from the Earth to the Sun. Pioneer 10 is far behind that, projected at 109 AU in 2012. Communication was lost in 2003. Voyager 2 is still active, and is approximately 103 AU out. Pioneer 11, which NASA lost contact with in 1995, is estimated to be at 86 AU as of 2012.

We’d of course be remiss not to mention New Horizons, the craft currently on a trajectory for Pluto, which it will swoop by in 2015 before continuing on to the outer solar system. Thus far, it’s only about 27 AU out from the sun. It is expected to leave the solar system in 2029. A booster rocket of the craft is also on a path set to exit the solar system.

Little Green Men

With some push from Carl Sagan, both Voyager probes were given a “Golden Record,” a phonograph of words and images meant to tell aliens of existence here on earth, should the probes be found. Classical music melds with sounds of nature and a series of hellos in various languages on the disc.

Included in the music selections? “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry.

The Pioneers contain simple plaques, showing two naked humans, the position of the solar system in relation to a group of stars, and the location of the Earth within the solar system. (Prior to Pluto’s demotion, of course.)

Speaking of Pluto, New Horizons doesn’t have an equivalent to either on board. There are a few objects on board, though, which might pique the interest of the discoverers, even if they’ll have no way to tell what they are. Included is a CD with the names of 400,000 persons, as well as the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who first discovered Pluto in 1930. A Florida state quarter and a scrap of SpaceShipOne are among the few other personal effects on the craft.

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Pop Culture
Neil deGrasse Tyson Recruits George R.R. Martin to Work on His New Video Game
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Kevin Winter / Getty Images

George R.R. Martin has been keeping busy with the latest installment of his Song of Ice and Fire series, but that doesn’t mean he has no time for side projects. As The Daily Beast reports, the fantasy author is taking a departure from novel-writing to work on a video game helmed by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

DeGrasse Tyson’s game, titled Space Odyssey, is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. He envisions an interactive, desktop experience that will allow players to create and explore their own planets while learning about physics at the same time. To do this correctly, he and his team are working with some of the brightest minds in science like Bill Nye, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, and astrophysicist Charles Liu. The list of collaborators also includes a few unexpected names—like Martin, the man who gave us Game of Thrones.

Though Martin has more experience writing about dragons in Westeros than robots in outer space, deGrasse Tyson believes his world-building skills will be essential to the project. “For me [with] Game of Thrones ... I like that they’re creating a world that needs to be self-consistent,” deGrasse Tyson told The Daily Beast. “Create any world you want, just make it self-consistent, and base it on something accessible. I’m a big fan of Mark Twain’s quote: ‘First get your facts straight. Then distort them at your leisure.’”

Other giants from the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, including Neil Gaiman and Len Wein (co-creator of Marvel's Wolverine character), have signed on to help with that same part of the process. The campaign for Space Odyssey has until Saturday, July 29 to reach its $314,159 funding goal—of which it has already raised more than $278,000. If the video game gets completed, you can expect it to be the nerdiest Neil deGrasse Tyson project since his audiobook with LeVar Burton.

[h/t The Daily Beast]

Flying Telescopes Will Watch the Total Solar Eclipse from the Air

If you've ever stood on the tips of your toes to reach something on a high shelf, you get it: Sometimes a little extra height makes all the difference. Although in this case, we're talking miles, not inches, as scientists are sending telescopes up on airplanes to monitor conditions on the Sun and Mercury during the upcoming total eclipse.

Weather permitting, the Great American Eclipse (as some are calling it) will be at least partially visible from anywhere in the continental U.S. on August 21. It will be the first time an eclipse has been so widely visible in the U.S. since 1918 and represents an incredible opportunity not only for amateur sky-watchers but also for scientists from coast to coast.

But why settle for gawking from the ground when there's an even better view up in the sky?

Scientists at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) have announced plans to mount monitoring equipment on NASA research planes. The telescopes, which contain super-sensitive, high-speed, and infrared cameras, will rise 50,000 feet (about 9.5 miles) above the Earth's surface to sneak a very special peek at the goings-on in our Sun and its nearest planetary buddy.

Gaining altitude will not only bring the instruments closer to their targets but should also help them avoid the meteorological chaos down below.

"Being above the weather guarantees perfect observing conditions, while being above more than 90 percent of Earth's atmosphere gives us much better image quality than on the ground," SwRI co-investigator Constantine Tsang said in a statement. "This mobile platform also allows us to chase the eclipse shadow, giving us over seven minutes of totality between the two planes, compared to just two minutes and 40 seconds for a stationary observer on the ground."

The darkness of that shadow will blot out much of the Sun's overpowering daily brightness, giving researchers a glimpse at rarely seen solar emissions.

"By looking for high-speed motion in the solar corona, we hope to understand what makes it so hot," senior investigator Amir Caspi said. "It's millions of degrees Celsius—hundreds of times hotter than the visible surface below. In addition, the corona is one of the major sources of electromagnetic storms here at Earth. These phenomena damage satellites, cause power grid blackouts, and disrupt communication and GPS signals, so it's important to better understand them."

The temporary blackout will also create fine conditions for peeping at Mercury's night side. Tsang says, "How the temperature changes across the surface gives us information about the thermophysical properties of Mercury's soil, down to depths of about a few centimeters—something that has never been measured before."


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