Archived Story

U.S. spacecraft reaches interstellar space

Published 8:36am Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

While we Americans were worried about Miley Cyrus twerking at an awards show, chemical weapons in Syria and whether the poor deserve assistance with buying food, NASA made a rather important announcement.

The federal space agency announced Sept. 12 that Voyager 1 had crossed the heliopause and entered the interstellar space. The scientists calculated that the space probe had crossed the heliopause on Aug. 25, 2012. That means America is the first country to send a manmade object into the space between the star systems of our galaxy.

That is amazing. It is quite a feat not only for our country, but for the people of Earth.

Where was the big celebration?

If you want to ask me what’s wrong with the modern news media, it is moments like these. There isn’t coverage of exploration, whether it is in space or advances in science down here on Earth. In the early and mid-20th century, newspapers highlighted explorers such as Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Jacques Cousteau, George Mallory, Edmund Hillary, Richard Byrd, Roald Amundsen, Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. Great thinkers became household names, such as Albert Einstein, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Charles Goodyear and Jonas Salk.

Are we explored out? Do we not care about advances in science and industry? Or is it that audiences don’t care anymore? Are innovation and exploration merely commodities now?

Sure, there was some coverage of Felix Baumgartner’s jump from 24 miles high in the stratosphere in October 2012, but most Americans don’t know his name. His name ought to be as common as Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, American swimmer Missy Franklin or troubled quarterback Tim Tebow. We all carry cellphones. Does anyone know of Martin Cooper, who is credited with inventing the device?

For most of the 20th century, newspapers were the dominant media source, and newspapers did more than merely chase ratings like TV tends to do. They also brought to light stories they believed people needed to know, not just what would get eyeballs to look at paper. Indeed, they wanted readers, but they also wanted to educate readers about the world around them.

Now we live in another age, which is special unto itself, where YouTube videos turn people like Justin Bieber and Sam Gordon into celebrities and people are more interested in catching up with Kardashians than in the people who change the world around us.

I shouldn’t just blame the media, either. What about our leaders? How come President Barack Obama didn’t offer up a statement on the interstellar accomplishment? Does no one care about outer space anymore?

Well, I do.

Voyager 1 is 11.3 billion miles from Earth. So what’s it like out there?

The heliosphere is where the solar wind is present. It is like a bubble in space where the sun has influence. At the heliopause it presses against the interstellar medium, which turns out to be 40 times more dense with particles than inside the heliosphere. It is as though the solar wind is pushing away the density of interstellar space.

The probe’s detection of particles from the solar wind dropped dramatically in August 2012, but they took a year to announce it as scientists debated what they had found. See, their models had predicted a drop in the sun’s magnetic activity, too, but that didn’t happen. Magnetic fields continue to puzzle them.

Voyager 2, which is headed in a different direction, is expected to reach interstellar space in five to seven years. Both launched in 1977 to explore the outer planets and have changed our understanding of the solar system and the universe. They are without a doubt the greatest unmanned explorers of all time.

Voyager 1 still isn’t out of the solar system. There is yet another thing out there under the influence of our friendly star. It is called the Oort Cloud, a region of comets way out there yet in orbit around the sun. It will take about 300 years for Voyager 1 to get there.

The probe will not be functioning then, of course. The spacecraft gets power from the radioactive decay of plutonium, and scientists will need to begin turning off instruments around 2025. It will continue its journey outward at about 38,000 miles per hour, but without power.


Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.