University of Iowa helps reach interstellar milestone

Plasma wave instrument developed at Iowa key in detecting Voyagers

Published: September 13 2013 | 8:11 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 8:23 pm in

A spacecraft carrying a plasma wave instrument developed by the University of Iowa in the 1970s has reached an historic milestone in space exploration.Officials say the Voyager I, which launched in 1977 and is about 12 million miles from the sun, is the first-ever man-made object to reach interstellar space. Interstellar space is the region beyond all known planets and Pluto, as well as beyond the influence of the sun's solar winds.

"I think it’s one of these achievements and milestones in the history of space flight - to reach and finally get into interstellar space," Donald Gurnett, a UI space physicist, said speaking from NASA.

NASA announced the discovery on Thursday afternoon, and a report about the data is included in the Sept. 12 online issue of the journal Science.

Gurnett said the plasma wave instrument he and the Iowa team developed was key in detecting the probe had reached interstellar space. The data signaling the breakthrough first came in on April 9, Gurnett said, but after reviewing the data scientists said there was evidence the craft had been in this interstellar territory - a plasma or ionized gas region that exists in space between the stars - since October or November 2012.

Gurnett said he hopes now to begin studying the density of dust particles in the interstellar medium.

"Now, I’m also in business of measuring interstellar dust density," said Gurnett, who's been a professor at UI since 1965. "For some of us, we think this is pretty profound stuff."

The twin spacecrafts - Voyager I and Voyager II - were launched as part of a mission to reach the outer planets, and after doing so the mission was refocused on reaching interstellar space. The funding for Voyager I and Voyager II missions is nearing $1 billion, according to NASA.

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