Teachable Moments| December 18, 2018
Then There Were Two: Voyager 2 Reaches Interstellar Space
In the News
The Voyager 2 spacecraft, launched in 1977, has reached interstellar space, a region beyond the heliosphere – the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun – where the only other human-made object is its twin, Voyager 1.
The achievement means new opportunities for scientists to study this mysterious region. And for educators, it’s a chance to get students exploring the scale and anatomy of our solar system, plus the engineering and math required for such an epic journey.
How They Did It
Launched just 16 days apart, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were designed to take advantage of a rare alignment of the outer planets that only occurs once every 176 years. Their trajectory took them by the outer planets, where they captured never-before-seen images. They were also able to steal a little momentum from Jupiter and Saturn that helped send them on a path toward interstellar space. This “gravity assist” gave the spacecraft a velocity boost without expending any fuel. Though both spacecraft were destined for interstellar space, they followed slightly different trajectories.
Voyager 1 followed a path that enabled it to fly by Jupiter in 1979, discovering the gas giant’s rings. It continued on for a 1980 close encounter with Saturn’s moon Titan before a gravity assist from Saturn hurled it above the plane of the solar system and out toward interstellar space. After Voyager 2 visited Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1981, it continued on to encounter Uranus in 1986, where it obtained another assist. Its last planetary visit before heading out of the solar system was Neptune in 1989, where the gas giant’s gravity sent the probe in a southward direction toward interstellar space. Since the end of its prime mission at Neptune, Voyager 2 has been using its onboard instruments to continue sensing the environment around it, communicating data back to scientists on Earth. It was this data that scientists used to determine Voyager 2 had entered interstellar space.
How We Know
Interstellar space, the region between the stars, is beyond the influence of the solar wind, charged particles emanating from the Sun, and before the influence of the stellar wind of another star. One hint that Voyager 2 was nearing interstellar space came in late August when the Cosmic Ray Subsystem, an instrument that measures cosmic rays coming from the Sun and galactic cosmic rays coming from outside our solar system, measured an increase in galactic cosmic rays hitting the spacecraft. Then on November 5, the instrument detected a sharp decrease in high energy particles from the Sun. That downward trend continued over the following weeks.
The data from the cosmic ray instrument provided strong evidence that Voyager 2 had entered interstellar space because its twin had returned similar data when it crossed the boundary of the heliosheath. But the most compelling evidence came from its Plasma Science Experiment – an instrument that had stopped working on Voyager 1 in 1980. Until recently, the space surrounding Voyager 2 was filled mostly with plasma flowing out from our Sun. This outflow, called the solar wind, creates a bubble, the heliosphere, that envelopes all the planets in our solar system. Voyager 2’s Plasma Science Experiment can detect the speed, density, temperature, pressure and flux of that solar wind. On the same day that the spacecraft’s cosmic ray instrument detected a steep decline in the number of solar energetic particles, the plasma science instrument observed a decline in the speed of the solar wind. Since that date, the plasma instrument has observed no solar wind flow in the environment around Voyager 2, which makes mission scientists confident the probe has entered interstellar space.
Though the spacecraft have left the heliosphere, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have not yet left the solar system, and won't be leaving anytime soon. The boundary of the solar system is considered to be beyond the outer edge of the Oort Cloud, a collection of small objects that are still under the influence of the Sun's gravity. The width of the Oort Cloud is not known precisely, but it is estimated to begin at about 1,000 astronomical units from the Sun and extend to about 100,000 AU. (One astronomical unit, or AU, is the distance from the Sun to Earth.) It will take about 300 years for Voyager 2 to reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud and possibly 30,000 years to fly beyond it. By that time, both Voyager spacecraft will be completely out of the hydrazine fuel used to point them toward Earth (to send and receive data) and their power sources will have decayed beyond their usable lifetime.
Why It’s Important
Since the Voyager spacecraft launched more than 40 years ago, no other NASA missions have encountered as many planets (some of which had never been visited) and continued making science observations from such great distances. Other spacecraft, such as New Horizons and Pioneer 10 and 11, will eventually make it to interstellar space, but we will have no data from them to confirm their arrival or explore the region because their instruments already have or will have shut off by then.
Interstellar space is a region that’s still mysterious because until 2012, when Voyager 1 arrived there, no spacecraft had visited it. Now, data from Voyager 2 will help add to scientists’ growing understanding of the region. Scientists are hoping to continue using Voyager 2’s plasma science instrument to study the properties of the ionized gases, or plasma, that exist in the interstellar medium by making direct measurements of the plasma density and temperature. This new data may shed more light on the evolution of our solar neighborhood and will most certainly provide a window into the exciting unexplored region of interstellar space, improving our understanding of space and our place in it.
As power wanes on Voyager 2, scientists will have to make tough choices about which instruments to keep turned on. Further complicating the situation is the freezing cold temperature at which the spacecraft is currently operating – perilously close to the freezing point of its hydrazine fuel. But for as long as both Voyager spacecraft are able to maintain power and communication, we will continue to learn about the uncharted territory of interstellar space.
Use these standards-aligned lessons and related activities to get students doing math and science with a real-world (and space!) connection.
Solar System Bead Activity
Students create a scale model of the solar system using beads and string.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Catching a Whisper from Space
Students kinesthetically model the mathematics of how NASA communicates with spacecraft.
Time 1-2 hrs
Solar System Scroll
Students predict the scale of our solar system and the distance between planets, then check their answers using fractions.
Time < 30 mins
*NEW* Modeling the Structure of the Solar System
Students will learn about the structure of the solar system and be able to identify analogous regions in a dynamic, 2-D kitchen-sink model.
Time 1-2 hrs
Hear Here: A 'Pi in the Sky' Math Challenge
Students use the mathematical constant pi to determine what fraction of a signal from Voyager 1 – the most distant spacecraft – reaches Earth.
Time < 30 mins
- News Release: “NASA’s Voyager 2 Probe Enters Interstellar Space” – Dec. 10, 2018
- News Release: “NASA Spacecraft Embarks on Historic Journey Into Interstellar Space” – September 12, 2013
- Voyager Mission
- Voyager Images
- Voyager 2: Interstellar, by the Numbers
- Commemorative Voyager Posters
TAGS: Teachers, Educators, Science, Engineering, Technology, Solar System, Voyager, Spacecraft, Educator Resources, Lessons, Activities