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NASA's Voyager 1 hits a 'magnetic highway' out of the solar system

Scientists at NASA say the unmanned Voyager 1 spacecraft has reached the edges of the solar system. They estimate in a few months to a year Voyager 1 will become the first manmade object to leave the solar system and enter interstellar space.

By Irene KlotzReuters / December 3, 2012

This artist rendering provided by NASA shows Voyager 1 at the edge of the solar system. NASA said Monday, that the long-running spacecraft has entered a new region at the fringes of the solar system thought to be the last layer before the beginning of interstellar space, or the space between stars.

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San Francisco

NASA's long-lived Voyager 1 spacecraft, which is heading out of the solar system, has reached a "magnetic highway" leading to interstellar space, scientists said on Monday.

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The probe, launched 35 years ago to study the outer planets, is now about 11 billion miles from Earth. At that distance, it takes radio signals traveling at the speed of light 17 hours to reach Earth. Light moves at 186,000 miles per second.

Voyager 1 will be the first manmade object to leave the solar system.

Scientists believe Voyager 1 is in an area where the magnetic field lines from the sun are connecting with magnetic field lines from interstellar space. The phenomenon is causing highly energetic particles from distant supernova explosions and other cosmic events to zoom inside the solar system, while less-energetic solar particles exit.

"It's like a highway, letting particles in and out," lead Voyager scientist Ed Stone told reporters at an American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

Scientists don't know how long it will take for the probe to cross the so-called "magnetic highway," but they believe it is the last layer of a complex boundary between the region of space under the sun's influence and interstellar space.

"Our best guess is it's likely just a few months to a couple years away," Stone said.

Voyager 1 hit the outer sphere of the solar system, a region called the heliosphere, in 2004 and passed into the heliosheath, where the supersonic stream of particles from the sun - the so-called "solar wind" - slowed down and became turbulent.

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