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As NASA’s Voyager 1 Surveys Interstellar Space, Its Density Measurements Are Making Waves

By Jet Propulsion Laboratory 

An illustration depicting one of NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft. Both Voyagers have entered interstellar space, or the space outside our Sun’s heliosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As NASA’s Voyager 1 Surveys Interstellar Space, Its Density Measurements Are Making Waves

In the sparse collection of atoms that fills interstellar space, Voyager 1 has measured a long-lasting series of waves where it previously only detected sporadic bursts.

Until recently, every spacecraft in history had made all of its measurements inside our heliosphere, the magnetic bubble inflated by our Sun. But on August 25, 2012, NASA’s Voyager 1 changed that. As it crossed the heliosphere’s boundary, it became the first human-made object to enter – and measure – interstellar space. Now eight years into its interstellar journey, a close listen of Voyager 1’s data is yielding new insights into what that frontier is like.

If our heliosphere is a ship sailing interstellar waters, Voyager 1 is a life raft just dropped from the deck, determined to survey the currents. For now, any rough waters it feels are mostly from our heliosphere’s wake. But farther out, it will sense the stirrings from sources deeper in the cosmos. Eventually, our heliosphere’s presence will fade from its measurements completely.

This graphic from October 20218 shows the position of the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes relative to the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto. Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause, or the edge of the heliosphere, in 2012. Voyager 2 is still in the heliosheath, or the outermost part of the heliosphere. (NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft entered interstellar space in November 2018.) Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We have some ideas about how far Voyager will need to get to start seeing more pure interstellar waters, so to speak,” said Stella Ocker, a Ph.D. student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and the newest member of the Voyager team. “But we’re not entirely sure when we’ll reach that point.”

Ocker’s new study, published on Monday in Nature Astronomy, reports what may be the first continuous measurement of the density of material in interstellar space. “This detection offers us a new way to measure the density of interstellar space and opens up a new pathway for us to explore the structure of the very nearby interstellar medium,” Ocker said.
NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft captured these sounds of interstellar space. Voyager 1’s plasma wave instrument detected the vibrations of dense interstellar plasma, or ionized gas, from October to November 2012 and April to May 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-CaltechLoading videohttps://www.youtube.com/embed/0dSlb3as9J0

When one pictures the stuff between the stars – astronomers call it the “interstellar medium,” a spread-out soup of particles and radiation – one might reimagine a calm, silent, serene environment. That would be a mistake.

“I have used the phrase ‘the quiescent interstellar medium’ – but you can find lots of places that are not particularly quiescent,” said Jim Cordes, space physicist at Cornell and co-author of the paper.

Like the ocean, the interstellar medium is full of turbulent waves. The largest come from our galaxy’s rotation, as space smears against itself and sets forth undulations tens of light-years across. Smaller (though still gigantic) waves rush from supernova blasts, stretching billions of miles from crest to crest. The smallest ripples are usually from our own Sun, as solar eruptions send shockwaves through space that permeate our heliosphere’s lining.

These crashing waves reveal clues about the density of the interstellar medium – a value that affects our understanding of the shape of our heliosphere, how stars form, and even our own location in the galaxy. As these waves reverberate through space, they vibrate the electrons around them, which ring out at characteristic frequencies depending on how crammed together they are. The higher the pitch of that ringing, the higher the electron density. Voyager 1’s Plasma Wave Subsystem – which includes two “bunny ear” antennas sticking out 30 feet (10 meters) behind the spacecraft – was designed to hear that ringing.

An illustration of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft showing the antennas used by the Plasma Wave Subsystem and other instruments. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In November 2012, three months after exiting the heliosphere, Voyager 1 heard interstellar sounds for the first time (see video above). Six months later, another “whistle” appeared – this time louder and even higher pitched. The interstellar medium appeared to be getting thicker, and quickly.

These momentary whistles continue at irregular intervals in Voyager’s data today. They’re an excellent way to study the interstellar medium’s density, but it does take some patience.

“They’ve only been seen about once a year, so relying on these kinds of fortuitous events meant that our map of the density of interstellar space was kind of sparse,” Ocker said.

Ocker set out to find a running measure of interstellar medium density to fill in the gaps – one that doesn’t depend on the occasional shockwaves propagating out from the Sun. After filtering through Voyager 1’s data, looking for weak but consistent signals, she found a promising candidate. It started to pick up in mid-2017, right around the time of another whistle.

“It’s virtually a single tone,” said Ocker. “And over time, we do hear it change – but the way the frequency moves around tells us how the density is changing.”

Weak but nearly continuous plasma oscillation events – visible as a thin red line in this graphic/tk – connect stronger events in Voyager 1’s Plasma Wave Subsystem data. The image alternates between graphs showing only the strong signals (blue background) and the filtered data showing weaker signals. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stella Ocker

Ocker calls the new signal a plasma wave emission, and it, too, appeared to track the density of interstellar space. When the abrupt whistles appeared in the data, the tone of the emission rises and falls with them. The signal also resembles one observed in Earth’s upper atmosphere that’s known to track with the electron density there.

“This is really exciting, because we are able to regularly sample the density over a very long stretch of space, the longest stretch of space that we have so far,” said Ocker. “This provides us with the most complete map of the density and the interstellar medium as seen by Voyager.”

Based on the signal, electron density around Voyager 1 started rising in 2013 and reached its current levels about mid-2015, a roughly 40-fold increase in density. The spacecraft appears to be in a similar density range, with some fluctuations, through the entire dataset they analyzed which ended in early 2020.

Ocker and her colleagues are currently trying to develop a physical model of how the plasma wave emission is produced that will be key to interpreting it. In the meantime, Voyager 1’s Plasma Wave Subsystem keeps sending back data farther and farther from home, where every new discovery has the potential to make us reimagining our home in the cosmos.

For more on this research, read In the Emptiness of Space 14 Billion Miles Away, Voyager I Detects “Hum” From Plasma Waves.

Reference: “Persistent plasma waves in interstellar space detected by Voyager 1” by Stella Koch Ocker, James M. Cordes, Shami Chatterjee, Donald A. Gurnett, William S. Kurth and Steven R. Spangler, 10 May 2021, Nature Astronomy.
DOI: 10.1038/s41550-021-01363-7

The Voyager spacecraft were built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which continues to operate both. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

SpaceX just launched 60 new Starlink internet satellites and nailed rocket landing at sea

SpaceX just launched 60 new Starlink internet satellites and nailed rocket landing at sea There’s more than 800 Starlink satellites in orbit now. By Amy Thompson via Space.com

 CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX successfully launched a full stack of Starlink internet satellites into today (Oct. 18) and capped off the mission with a successful rocket landing at sea. 

A two-stage Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from NASA’s historic Pad 39A here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 8:25 a.m. EDT (1225 GMT) carrying 60 new Starlink satellites for SpaceX’s growing constellation in orbit.

Approximately 9 minutes later, the booster’s first stage returned to Earth, landing on one of SpaceX’s drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean in a smooth touchdown. The massive ship, called Of Course I Still Love You, is one of two in the company’s fleet of recovery vessels that catch falling boosters and return them to port. 

Related: SpaceX’s Starlink satellite megaconstellation launches in photoshttps://ec3828e5e626ba3fd9319b3b3fab55bc.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html?n=0

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches 60 Starlink internet satellites into orbit from Launch Complex 39A of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Oct. 18, 2020. (Image credit: SpaceX)

It was nothing but blue skies over the Space Coast today. Thanks to crystal clear skies, onlookers could follow the rocket from launch to stage separation. 

“A great way to start off a Sunday,” SpaceX production supervisor Andy Tran said during live launch commentary.

Known as B1051, the booster featured in today’s flight now has six launches and landings under its belt — the second Falcon 9 to do so. This frequent flier has ferried four different Starlink payloads to space, as well as a trio of Earth-observing satellites for Canada and an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft for NASA’s Demo-1 mission back in 2019. The landing today marked the 62st recovery of a Falcon first stage since SpaceX recovered its first booster in 2015.https://ec3828e5e626ba3fd9319b3b3fab55bc.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html?n=0

Reusable rockets

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches 60 Starlink internet satellites into orbit from Launch Complex 39A of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Oct. 18, 2020. (Image credit: SpaceX)

Today’s flight marked the 18th launch of 2020 for SpaceX and the 95th Falcon 9 flight to date. SpaceX has had a busy summer and could have its busiest launch year yet. Currently that record belongs to 2018, when the company launched 21 times. 

This achievement is facilitated by SpaceX’s fleet of flight-proven boosters. Currently in its rocket reserves, SpaceX has five veteran boosters, and three brand new ones that are reserved for upcoming missions. In 2018, SpaceX debuted a souped up version of its workhorse, the Falcon 9 Block 5. This upgraded iteration received a host of new features which included a more robust thermal protection system, titanium grid fins, a more durable interstage (the hardware that connects the rocket’s two stages), and more powerful engines. Loading video

Now packing more than 1.7 million pounds of thrust, the upgraded Falcon 9 has performed reliably for the most part (the rocket has experienced two launchpad aborts in recent months)since launching its first payload in 2018 — a communications satellite for Bangladesh. With that launch, the company bid farewell to the moderately reusable Falcons of the past, ushering in a new era where the same rocket has the capability of flying many times. 

Ever since, SpaceX has been working to hone its reusable rocket technology. Its track record with flight-proven rockets even earned the company the right to launch military and national security payloads as well as astronauts on previously flown rockets

Related: Hitch a ride (and back) on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in this awesome video

(Image credit: SpaceX)
(Image credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX has grand ambitions to help make humanity a multiplanetary species. In order to help fund its Mars ambitions, the company developed a plan to blanket the Earth with internet coverage beamed down from a tight-knit menagerie of broadband satellites. This megaconstellation would consist of thousands of satellites, flying close to the planet in a region of space called low-Earth orbit. 

The internet satellite network would be a way for SpaceX and its CEO, Elon Musk, to generate revenue for Mars exploration and the necessary hardware, like more advanced rockets and other spacecraft. Musk has estimated that the Starlink service could generate as much as $30 billion a year, although no actual pricing has been announced yet.  

The burgeoning internet service is currently going through a private beta-testing program where company employees have been putting the broadband service through its paces. According to reports from SpaceX team members current data indicates it can support multiple high-definition streams at the same time. Loading video

With this launch, the company will have sent more than 800 of the quarter-ton, flat-panel satellites into space — a milestone Musk has said  needed to be reached before SpaceX could begin to roll out its service. There are still regulatory hurdles to overcome and more satellites to launch before the service can be offered globally, but initial testing is promising. As a result, the company plans to open up the beta-testing to the public sometime in the near future. 

SpaceX created its Starlink megaconstellation with one goal in mind: to provide more affordable high-speed internet access around the globe, especially for those in rural and remote areas. To that end, the company initially planned for a fleet of 1,440 satellites, but has since obtained approval for thousands more. 

The Federal Communications Commission has granted SpaceX permission to launch as many as 12,000 of the flat-panel broadband satellites, but SpaceX may not stop there. The company has indicated it will see approval to launch as many as 30,000 of its internet-beaming satellites to beam down high-speed, low-latency Internet signals. 

Related: Why SpaceX’s Starlink satellites caught astronomers off guard

SpaceX builds its own Starlink satellites at a company facility in Redmond, Washington. (It also manufactures its own user terminals and ground stations at this location.) Despite still being in beta-testing, SpaceX has granted outside users access to its Starlink network. In August, the company partnered with Washington State to provide emergency responders with reliable internet access. 

The state is one of several in the Western U.S. that has been devastated by wildfires this year. In August, emergency responders were given several user terminals to connect to the broadband network so that they could have access to reliable internet service to help a region in trouble. 

Washington State’s Emergency Management department thanked SpaceX for the access to the Starlink network on Twitter earlier this month. The tweet also included a look at the user terminals, which Musk has described as a “UFO on a stick” and boasted their simplicity, saying anyone could connect one with ease. According to a report from CNBC, officials in Washington confirmed that the user terminals are incredibly easy to use, with setup taking only a few minutes. Loading video

Also in August, SpaceX used Starlink to connect  the administration building and homes on the Hoh Native American reservation in western Washington to high-speed internet, Tran said.

“The Hoh are a Native American tribe living at the mouth of the Hoh river in western Washington state on the Pacific Coast,” Tran said. “This remote location had previously hindered access to high-speed broadband, but after the Starlinks were installed the tribe went from practically no connectivity to high-speed internet overnight.” 

“What a difference high-speed internet can make!” Hoh tribe officials wrote on Twitter this month.” Our children can participate in remote learning, residents can access health care. We felt like we’d been paddling up-river with a spoon on this. SpaceX Starlink made it happen overnight.” SpaceX hopes to roll out coverage to the U.S. and Canada by the end of the year, but that depends on how well the beta-testing phase goes. 

Astronomical Challenge

Despite early reports that Starlink is performing well, the megaconstellation still remains controversial. That’s because it presents a challenge to those studying the night sky. 

Astronomers rely on dark skies to make critical observations of the universe and its population of stars, planets, and galaxies. When Starlink first launched, it caught many astronomers off guard as it obscured their observations. 

Starlink satellites typically launch in groups of 60, and as they raise their orbit, they can appear as a bright train of dots marching across the night sky. This train has been spotted by photographers around the world and has even shown up in images captured by massive ground telescopes, making it difficult for scientists to discern if a bright streak across the sky is a star or a Starlink satellite. 

To help mitigate this, SpaceX is trying to reduce the apparent brightness of its satellites by outfitting them with a sunshield. This special visor helps reduce sunlight from reflecting off the brightest parts of the satellites, namely the antennas. 

Related: Avoiding space debris might require new legal framework

But that’s not the only cause for concern. The massive satellite fleet is also worrisome for other rocket companies. 

SpaceX’s Starlink isn’t the only internet constellation in the works, Amazon and OneWeb are also planning their own internet beaming services. Rocket Lab CEO, Peter Beck, says the company is starting to feel the effects of congestion in outer space. 

The sheer number of objects in space is quickly skyrocketing as more and more small satellites are launched. In turn, that ever-increasing amount of space traffic is making it difficult to find a clear launch path. That’s because outer space is largely an unregulated territory. The last major piece of global space legislation — the outer space treaty — was written five decades ago and does not address the growing commercial rocket industry. 

Researchers have warned for decades that this could one day be a substantial issue. In fact, the International Space Station has had to conduct maneuvers to avoid potential collisions with space debris three times so far in 2020. NASA and other space agencies around the world are working on developing missions where debris and defunct satellites can be trapped or even safely moved to another position. 

Dynamic duo

As part of its recovery efforts, SpaceX deployed its twin fairing catcher boats — GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief. The dynamic duo were expected to recover the payload fairings once they’ve returned to Earth. Both fairing pieces used on this flight have each flown three times. 

Tran reported that both recovery ships managed to catch a fairing half, though the net on Go Ms. Tree gave way. SpaceX hopes to launch the fairing pieces again on a future flight.

Up next for SpaceX is the launch of another batch of Starlink satellites. That launch is scheduled to blast off from Space Launch Complex 40 no earlier than Oct. 21. Teams are still investigating an engine anomaly that occurred on Oct. 2, which prevented the launch of an upgraded GPS satellite from getting off the ground. 

That issue also pushed back the launch of NASA’s next astronaut crew. Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi are estimated to blast off to the International Space Station sometime before mid-November, allowing SpaceX more time to resolve its engine issue.  

Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

You didn’t have to cut me off – Somebody that I Used To Know – Gotye

Found this watching the Biohackers Soundtrack… a show on Netflix crazy thing, the main character uses crisper to make come critters glow red on command, crazy how vaguely familiar to another story I watched called Biohackers on YouTube where a guy was using Crisper to do the same thing…. Even more interesting is how my person who prefers to not be named retold that story… Amusingly, to become somebody I used to know.

Oddly circular, by I find synchronicity to be that way sometimes. Ode to creative storytime hmm?

Before you run my name…

Before you run my name through the mud, make sure to mention how good I was to you until you lost all of my respect. Mention everything I did for you. Tell them how I did my best to help you when no one else gave a shit. Then try to trash my name.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CAGJ6deFYzo

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