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Voyager 2 probe enters interstellar space

Voyager positions
This illustration shows the positions of NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto. Sizes and distances are not shown to scale. Click on the image for a larger version. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration)

NASA says its Voyager 2 probe has become the second human-made object to fly into interstellar space — six years after its twin, Voyager 1, became the first.

Based on readings from its onboard instruments, the mission’s scientists have determined that Voyager 2 has left the solar system’s heliosphere, a protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the sun. The spacecraft is now journeying in a region where the cold, dense interstellar medium takes the place of the tenuous, hot solar wind — more than 11 billion miles from Earth.

The milestone came more than 41 years after Voyager 2’s launch in 1977 on what was then a grand interplanetary mission, and is now a grand interstellar mission. During the 1970s and 1980s, Voyager 2 took on a “Grand Tour” with close flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, while Voyager 1 took a different course that featured a close-up of the Saturnian moon Titan.

Scientists discussed the mission’s status today in conjunction with this week’s American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington, D.C.

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Is weird object a starship? Scientists will check

'Oumuamua
An artist’s conception shows what the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua might look like. (ESO Illustration / M. Kornmesser)

Is that cigar-shaped, fast-moving interstellar object a spaceship? Almost certainly not, but Breakthrough Listen will check just to make sure.

The Breakthrough Listen campaign, which checks celestial targets for radio signals from intelligent civilizations, will turn the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia toward the object, known as ‘Oumuamua, starting Dec. 13.

Scientists will check for emissions across four radio bands from 1 to 12 GHz. The first phase of observations will take up 10 hours, divided into four key time periods based on ‘Oumuamua’s period of rotation.

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Tiny probes get tested for interstellar mission

Yuri Milner and Sprite
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner holds a “Sprite” mini-probe like the ones that are being tested in low Earth orbit. (Breakthrough Starshot via YouTube / SciNews)

Breakthrough Starshot says it’s been testing prototype interstellar spacecraft no bigger than postage stamps in orbit for the past month, and they seem to be working just fine.

Six of the 1.4-inch-square circuit boards, dubbed “Sprites,” were launched into low Earth orbit on June 23 as tiny piggyback payloads on two nanosatellites. Those educational satellites, Max Valier Sat and Venta 1, were developed with the aid of German-based OHB System and launched by an Indian PSLV rocket. (Seattle-based Spaceflight played a role in launch logistics.)

In a statement issued today, Breakthrough Starshot said the Sprites are still attached to the nanosatellites and are “performing as designed.” The Sprite radio communication system is in contact with ground stations in California and New York, as well as with amateur radio enthusiasts around the world.

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Here’s how to stop a speeding starship

Starshot mission
The aim of the Starshot project is to send a tiny spacecraft propelled by an enormous rectangular photon sail to the Alpha Centauri star system, as shown in this artist’s conception, (Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo)

Millions of dollars are being spent on a scheme to speed up swarms of tiny sail-equipped probes to 20 percent of the speed of light and send them past Alpha Centauri – but how do you slow them down again?

German researchers suggest using the same light sails that got the probes going so fast in the first place.

René Heller, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, and information technology specialist Michael Hippke worked out a plan could be factored into Breakthrough Starshot’s decades-long mission plan. The details are laid out today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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Starship science is built into ‘Passengers’ script

Starship Avalon
The starship Avalon approaches Arcturus in a scene from “Passengers.” (Sony Pictures via YouTube)

The science is under the hood in “Passengers,” a love story set on a giant starship – and screenwriter Jon Spaihts is the guy who put it there.

Chances are most movie fans are going to the movie to see Hollywood stars Jennifer Lawrence (“The Hunger Games,” etc.) and Chris Pratt (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” etc.) rather than to get a tutorial on the physics of the Coriolis effect on a rotating spacecraft. But just in case there are some space geeks in the audience, Spaihts made sure the math works out.

The one-time physics student and science writer has already made a name for himself as “Hollywood’s go-to science fiction screenwriter,” thanks to his work on “Prometheus,” “Doctor Strange” and the upcoming reboot of “The Mummy.”

For “Passengers,” Spaihts created a setting that is both expansive and claustrophobic. All of the action takes place on a starship traveling across light-years of emptiness to a colony world.

But what a starship! “The ship is a character unto itself,” the film’s director, Morten Tyldum, told GeekWire.

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Going to Alpha Centauri? Try antimatter

An artist’s conception shows a positron rocket engine. (Positronics Research via NASA)
An artist’s conception shows a positron rocket engine. (Positronics Research via NASA)

Project Blue’s scientists still have to raise more than $800,000 over the next 15 days to reach their initial crowdfunding goal for a mission to observe Alpha Centauri’s alien planets, but they’re already thinking about how future explorers could get there.

It would take tens of thousands of years to make the 4.37-light-year trip using the best rocket propulsion that’s available today.

But a video created by Speculative Films, with input from Project Blue as well as Positron Dynamics, focuses on how antimatter propulsion could reduce that travel time to 40 years.

Antimatter drives have been a science-fiction standby since the original “Star Trek” TV series. They’ve also been the subject of real-world research. Almost two decades ago, researchers were talking with NASA about an antimatter-driven sail that could send a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri in the 40-year time frame.

Positron Dynamics’ concept calls for cooling down a stream of positrons — the antimatter equivalent of electrons — and smashing them into a stream of electrons. Theoretically, that could produce enough oomph to accelerate a probe to more than one-tenth of the speed of light.

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