Voyager Spacecraft Has Or Has Not Left Solar System, Science Fistfight Continues

The Voyager 1 spacecraft left the solar system a year ago. No, really. On Thursday a University of Maryland team published a claim that the famous space probe launched on September 5, 1977 did in fact depart this solar system about a year ago.

The team published their evidence this week in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

With that paper, the researchers essentially took the side of Bill Webber and other astronomers who published research earlier this year in Geophysical Research Letters. Those scientists pinpointed the Voyager 1 spacecraft’s date of departure as August 25, 2012 — coming up fast on almost a full year ago.

However, there’s no nice and neat fence at the end of the solar system. NASA has repeatedly disputed the findings that Voyager 1 has left the stage.

And the space agency fired right back with their own statement on Thursday to dispute the new study: “By [NASA’s current] interpretation, Voyager 1 would still be inside our solar bubble.”

However, they seemed to concede that the new data was worth exploring further. “The fine-scale magnetic connection model will become part of the discussion…”

Hmm.

voyager spacecraft debate
a famous montage from the voyager 1 spacecraft

Can you believe we’re still fighting about this? I last provided an update on the Voyager 1 spacecraft debate in March. At that time I made this comment:

Maybe Voyager 1 has left the building, and maybe it hasn’t. Either way, it remains on track to be the first human-made object to ever leave our solar system.

Built with laughably primitive computers and 1970s technology, Voyager 1 is the longest-operating spacecraft of all time.

It is becoming increasingly clear that astronomers refuse to agree on exactly where you draw a line and say, “That’s it. The solar system is so over.”

We may never know the exact date that the Voyager 1 spacecraft left the solar system. Heck, it may still be in the future.