Friday, March 22, 2013

VOYAGER POISED ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER



I confess that when I hear “Voyager” my mind conjures a vision of the ethereal Persis Khambatta demanding of Captain Kirk, “V'Ger needs the information!”  So this week’s news from NASA that our far-space probe Voyager 1 (launched in 1977) had reached the “edge” of our solar system was a pulse-pounding moment of excitement.  We were finally crossing our collective threshold, stepping outside into the larger universe, even if it was only by the proxy of a mechanical probe, incapable of sending anything but the most rudimentary signals back to us.  And if anyone or anything was out there to find it, “V'Ger” would be evidence that something intelligent was on this end, seeking contact.

Well, alas, it seems we’re not quite there yet.  NASA scientists had to back off their declaration almost immediately, explaining that determining just where the solar system ended wasn’t easy.  According to an article on SPACE.com, the probe is currently now somewhere along the outer boundary of the system “where the Sun's influence ends and the electrified solar wind slams into the thin expanse of gas between stars.”  

Scientists believe that where the solar wind meets interstellar gas, a shockwave develops, known as termination shock.  The solar wind becomes denser and hotter, and the magnetic field flares and distorts.  And, indeed, the little probe is sending back data confirming the theories.

"The consensus of the team now is that Voyager 1, at 8.7 billion miles from the Sun, has at last entered the heliosheath, the region beyond the termination shock," said MIT's John Richardson, principal investigator of the Voyager plasma science investigation.  

Beyond that, however, the scientists are not certain of the exact limits of the boundary area.  What we know of the outer reaches of our solar system we know from telescopic observation, mathematical deduction and, yes, you guessed it, the Voyager probes, 1 and 2.  That leaves a lot of unknowns, even as close as the nebulous edge of our solar system.

Oh, but wait, you say!  There were other probes sent out!  Yes, two of the Pioneer probes (10 and 11), sent even earlier in the Seventies, are now nearing the same boundary zone of the solar system.  But data from these probes are raising even more questions for another set of scientists, questions that may eventually shake the foundations of our thinking about gravity.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist John Anderson first discovered in the 1980’s that the two Pioneer spacecraft should be at least 400,000 kilometers further out toward the edge of the solar system than they are. He eventually told colleagues Slava Turyshev at JPL and Michael Martin Nieto at Los Alamos National Laboratory about this “Pioneer anomaly” and they agreed. Something is holding the probes back, something beyond a failure of the craft systems themselves, which were tested and found to be in perfect working order. 

The researchers do not yet know what that “something” is, but there are three possibilities, according to SPACE.com: 

  •     Invisible dark matter is slowing the probes    
  •   Other dimensions influence the movement of the probes in ways we can’t measure     
    • Gravity works differently than we think
If any of these are true our current theories of gravity and physics need significant revision.  But determining that will require a new mission from Earth.  Both of the remaining Pioneer spacecraft have sent their last signals on their way out of the solar system.  NASA, with its limited budget, may not be able to investigate, but the European Space Agency has indicated some interest.

The fascinating thing about all of this for us as science fiction writers is that these mysteries exist so “close” to home.  We don’t have to take our heroes and heroines into deep space to find a challenge.  Science is proving that our immediate neighborhood hides its own secrets.  Laurie sets her novel The Outer Planets in our homey little solar system and manages to find plenty of excitement.  In my Interstellar Rescue SFR series, I posit a jump node (wormhole-type travel gate) to other more populated parts of the galaxy right at the edge of our solar system that makes Earth a target of nasty aliens.  So now the scientists say there may be “other dimensions” messing with our space probes on the boundary of the system?  Woohoo!  Uh, well, sorry NASA, but that’s great for my story!

Donna NEEDS the information!

Information for this blog was taken from:
 “Voyager Probe Poised to Plunge into Interstellar Space”, by Robert Roy Britt, Senior Science Writer, SPACE.com (www.space.com/1118-voyager-probe-poised-plunge-interstellar-space.html

“The Problem of Gravity: New Mission Would Probe Strange Puzzle,”  by Robert Roy Britt, Senior Science Writer, SPACE.com (www.space.com/448-problem-gravity-mission-probe-strange-puzzle.html

Cheers, Donna




2 comments:

Laurie A. Green said...

Donna, fabulous post. This is beyond exciting and inspiring information for SFR writers to know and to share!

It seems every time we venture "where no one has gone before" we learn new things, and how limited our knowledge of the complexities and anomalies of space really is.

Yes, indeed, The Outer Planets mission never gets beyond the moons of Saturn, but there is indeed plenty to explore and experience right here in Earth's neighborhood.

The recent Voyager and Pioneer discoveries only add more layers to the mysteries of our own solar system.

Sharon Lynn Fisher said...

Maybe this will help compensate science for the fact those CERN physicists are yawning over their apparent bagging of the Higgs Boson!