Cosmic Kerfuffle: Where Does the Solar System End?
Voyager 1 and 2 have been in space for 33 years and have traveled 11.5 billion and 9.5 billion miles respectively.
Not knowing where we are makes us all a little crazy. Consider how you feel when you’re driving along a strange road without a map or a GPS. Consider how you feel when you’re on the street in a city overseas, having no idea how to get back to your hotel and you don’t speak the local language. There’s a reason people freaked out when Apple dropped Google Maps. There’s a reason airplane seatbacks have little route maps on the screen. It takes a solid sense of place, it seems, to give us a solid sense of safety.
So pity the scientists tracking the Voyager 1 spacecraft.
As most people who pay attention to these things noticed yesterday, there was a cosmic battle royal when the American Geophysical Union (AGU) issued a surprise press release about new Voyager readings with the stunning headline: “Voyager 1 has left the solar system, sudden changes in cosmic rays indicate,” making it the first human-built object to cross that remarkable threshold. But NASA, which knows a thing or two about the twin Voyager spacecraft since it built them, launched them and controls them, fired back with a press release that said, in effect: Not. The NASA release tersely quoted the venerable Ed Stone, who has been at the helm of the Voyagers since the start of the program in 1972: