About 18,000,000,000km of home, Voyager 2 was interstellar



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"This is a great moment in the history of space exploration," says Glen Nagle, a spokesman for the Canberra space center.

Our solar system is covered by "solar wind" – an invisible stream of particles emitted by the sun. This wind repels the "interstellar wind," a stream of dangerous high-energy cosmic particles that run in our direction from deep space.

As Voyager 2 headed toward the edge of the solar system, an instrument onboard was monitoring a drop in the number of particles emitted by the sun reaching the ship.

This dropped when interstellar space was reached. At the same time, the intensity of galactic cosmic radiation also increased, showing that the spacecraft was out of the sun's protection.

"It's basically in the air now," says Nagle.

NASA launched Voyager 2 in 1977 with the mission of exploring the outer planets and then continuing to leave the solar system.

Its technology, old by today's standards, has proved incredibly robust.

"It's broadcasting about 20 watts of energy – the energy that powers the refrigerator lamp – and we're communicating 18 billion miles," says Nagle.

When the signal reaches Earth, its power is equivalent to one billionth of the amount of energy generated by a watch battery.

"For us, it's literally a whisper of space," says Nagle.

CSIRO Radio Telescope Parkes.

CSIRO Radio Telescope Parkes.Credit:CSIRO / Provided

To raise that signal, NASA helped refurbish the Parkes Radio Telescope by combining it with the plates of the Canberra Deep Communications Complex to form a high-powered listening matrix.

To save energy on his long journey between the stars, Voyager 2 turned off its recording device. The probe transmits data in real time – miss and lose forever.

That's why it's important to have as many ears to the sky as possible.

The probe passed Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1981, Uranus and 1986 and Neptune in 1989, transmitting images and data back to Earth each time.

This illustration shows the position of NASA's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes outside the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well beyond Pluto's orbit. Voyager 1 left the heliosphere in August 2012. Voyager 2 departed at a different location in November 2018.

This illustration shows the position of NASA's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes outside the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well beyond Pluto's orbit. Voyager 1 left the heliosphere in August 2012. Voyager 2 departed at a different location in November 2018.Credit:NASA / JPL-Caltech

Its sister ship, Voyager 1, was launched on a slightly different trajectory and was the first to reach interstellar space in 2012.

On board each vessel is the famous Golden Record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper record encoded with audio and images – a message from mankind to other civilizations.

The spacecraft will reach the next star on its flight path in about 40,000 years.

The Voyager gold-plated copper disk cover is leading into space.

The Voyager gold-plated copper disk cover is leading into space.Credit:NASA

Liam is a science reporter for Fairfax Media

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