From Asgardia via Medium: “Which Spacecraft Will Reach Interstellar Space Next?”

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NASA’s Voyager 2spacecraft reached interstellar space in December 2018, following in the footsteps of its sister, Voyager 1. Currently, only five spacecraft have been launched that can make such a grand exit, including the Voyagers. The other three are Pioneers 10 and 11, and New Horizons. Which one will make a great escape next?

NASA/Voyager 2

NASA/Voyager 1

NASA Pioneer 10

NASA Pioneer 11

NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

Reaching interstellar space is a milestone that is thought of as leaving the solar system by a specific definition. In 1990, the New York Times reported that Pioneer left the solar system when it flew past Neptune’s orbit. But that’s not what Voyager 2’s scientists used as their definition. Instead, the more recent measurements said the crossing of the sun’s heliopause, the theoretical boundary to its heliosphere, is the determining factor for entering interstellar space.

The heliosphere is a bubble of charged particles that are created by and flows past the sun. It is used by scientists to mark where interstellar space starts.

NASA Heliosphere

However, the heliosphere is tricky, and there are many changes such as the sun’s 22-year solar cycle, the shrinking and growing with the solar wind, and stretching out behind the sun in the star’s direction of travel. It’s not something that can be measured easily from Earth. Thus, NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission is trying to define the edges of the bubble remotely.

Observations from the Voyager probes’ indicate that they’ve pierced this bubble. However, since researchers think the Oort Cloud also surrounds the sun, an area of icy bodies that is estimated to stretch from 1,000 to 100,000 astronomical units — far beyond the heliopause — the Voyager probes cannot be considered entirely outside the solar system. (One astronomical unit, or AU, is the distance between the Earth and the sun — 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometres).

Oort cloud Image by TypePad, http://goo.gl/NWlQz6

Oort Cloud, The layout of the solar system, including the Oort Cloud, on a logarithmic scale. Credit: NASA, Universe Today

When Voyager 1 and 2 crossed the heliopause, their still-working particle instruments unveiled the historical events. The heliosphere functions as a shield, keeping out many of the higher-energy particles created by the cosmic rays generated by other stars.

Magnetosphere of Earth, original bitmap from NASA. SVG rendering by Aaron Kaase

By tracking both the low-energy particles found inside the solar system and the high-energy particles from outside of it, the instruments could reveal a sudden surge of cosmic rays alerting scientists that the spacecraft had left the solar system.

The ever-changing nature of the heliosphere makes it impossible to tell when Pioneer 10 and 11 will enter interstellar space. It’s even possible that one of them may have already.

As per NASA’s e-book Beyond Earth: A Chronicle of Deep Space Exploration, from Nov. 5, 2017, Pioneer 10 was approximately 118.824 AUs from Earth, farther than any craft besides Voyager 1. H(?), Although Pioneer 11 and the Voyager twins were all heading in the direction of the sun’s apparent travel, Pioneer 10 is headed toward the trailing side. 2017 research showed that the tail of the heliosphere is around 220 AU from the sun. Since Pioneer 10 travels about 2.5 AU/year, it will take Pioneer until roughly 2057–40 years — to reach the changing boundary.

Pioneer 11 was thought to be approximately 97.6 AUs from Earth as of Nov. 5, 2017, according to the same e-book. Unlike its twin, the spacecraft is travelling in about the same direction as the Voyagers. Voyager 2 crossed into interstellar medium at approximately 120 AUs. Since Pioneer 11 is moving at 2.3 AU/year, it should reach interstellar space in about eight years, around 2027 — assuming the boundary doesn’t change, which it probably will.

On Jan. 1, 2019, New Horizons made its most recent flyby of a solar system object, and it was launched much later than the other four. During this flyby, New Horizons was 43 AU from the sun. The mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern, told Space.com that the spacecraft was travelling approximately 3.1 AU each year, or 31 AU in ten years. In another two decades, the spacecraft has a good chance of reaching interstellar space. If New Horizons crossed at Voyager 2’s same border (it won’t, but just consider as a baseline), it would make the trip in just under 24 years, in 2043. But it’s possible the ISM line will move inward, allowing it to cross sooner.

Although there won’t be a direct confirmation of crossing the heliopause with the Pioneer spacecraft, it’s possible that New Horizons will still be working, and will give us a detailed study of interstellar space. The particle detectors that it holds are much more potent than the ones on Voyager, Stern said. Moreover, New Horizons holds a dust detector that would offer insight into the area beyond the heliosphere.

However, whether or not they will still be functioning remains to be seen. As per Stern, power is the limiting factor. New Horizons runs off of decaying plutonium dioxide. Presently, the spacecraft has enough power to work until the late 2030s, said Stern, and it is currently in good working order.

If in the unlikely event that the ever-changing heliosphere remains static Pioneer 11 will be the next to cross the heliopause in 2027, followed by New Horizons in 2043. Pioneer 10, the first of the five spacecraft to launch, will be the last to leave the heliosphere, in 2057. Once again, this assumes the extremely unrealistic chance that the heliopause remaining static for the next four decades.

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