Solar System Chatter

The Twisting Magnetic Field of Interstellar Space

The era of directly observing interstellar space has begun, and astronomers are just starting to put together the puzzle from Voyager 1 to form a more complete picture of what’s happening beyond the solar system. Initially, astronomers predicted that Voyager would detect a stable magnetic field outside the heliosphere (an older artist’s concept, right, showing Voyager 1 at the top, and stable magnetic field lines in black), but instead, it’s been passing through a field that’s slowly turning. By combining Voyager data with that from NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), which launched in 2009 and observes from a geocentric orbit, astronomers believe that at the interstellar boundary, solar wind is still distorting the magnetic field. By 2025, Voyager should pass beyond this distortion; unfortunately, the spacecraft will begin shutting down its science instruments due to lack of power around 2020.

Heather Goss is the Departments Editor at Air & Space.

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IBEX, Voyager