Archive for the ‘heliopause’ Category

A solar-powered rocket might be our ticket to interstellar space

November 21st, 2020
A solar-powered rocket might be our ticket to interstellar space

Enlarge (credit: Haitong Yu | Getty Images)

If Jason Benkoski is right, the path to interstellar space begins in a shipping container tucked behind a laboratory high bay in Maryland. The set up looks like something out of a low-budget sci-fi film: One wall of the container is lined with thousands of LEDs, an inscrutable metal trellis runs down the center, and a thick black curtain partially obscures the apparatus. This is the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory solar simulator, a tool that can shine with the intensity of 20 suns. On Thursday afternoon, Benkoski mounted a small black and white tile onto the trellis and pulled a dark curtain around the set-up before stepping out of the shipping container. Then he hit the light switch.

Once the solar simulator was blistering hot, Benkoski started pumping liquid helium through a small embedded tube that snaked across the slab. The helium absorbed heat from the LEDs as it wound through the channel and expanded until it was finally released through a small nozzle. It might not sound like much, but Benkoski and his team just demonstrated solar thermal propulsion, a previously theoretical type of rocket engine that is powered by the sun’s heat. They think it could be the key to interstellar exploration.

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A bonanza of data from the second Voyager to reach the Solar System’s edge

November 4th, 2019
Image of the Voyager 2 spacecraft.

Enlarge / An artist's interpretation of Voyager 2, pointed to transmit data to Earth. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

People probably suspect that having no data is the worst frustration for scientists. In reality, having just a single source of data can be worse, since you don't know how typical that lone example might be. But the worst situation is to have two sources of data that don't entirely agree, leaving you with the challenge of trying to determine what causes the differences.

That situation is where the scientists who work with data from NASA's Voyager probes find themselves in the wake of Voyager 2 reaching interstellar space last year, making it the second spacecraft we've built that has made it there. Now, in a series of five papers, researchers have attempted to compare or contrast the data from the two Voyagers and try to make sense of the contradictions, knowing that we've got nothing built that's going to get new data from that distance any time soon.

At the edge of the Solar System

The Sun's gravitational influence extends out to the edge of the Oort cloud, over three light years from the Sun. But the Sun influences its environment in ways that go beyond simple gravity. It generates an enormous magnetic field that extends well beyond the planets and emits a stream of charged particles that stream out toward interstellar space. These influences are limited by the influence of our galaxy, which has its own magnetic field and an interstellar medium full of its own charged particles.

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