December 4, 2012 in Nation/World

Voyager 1 in uncharted space

NASA: Craft likely to exit solar system
Associated Press
 
Martian soil yields no surprise

 NASA’s Curiosity rover has indeed found something in the Martian dirt. But so far, there’s no definitive sign of the chemical ingredients necessary to support life.

 A scoop of sandy soil analyzed by Curiosity’s sophisticated chemistry laboratory contained water and a mix of chemicals, but not complex carbon-based molecules considered essential for life.

 That the soil was not more hospitable did not surprise mission scientist Paul Mahaffy since radiation from space can destroy any carbon evidence.

 “It’s not unexpected necessarily,” said Mahaffy, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It’s been exposed to the harsh Martian environment.”

 The latest findings were presented Monday at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. The mission managed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory is trying to determine whether conditions on Mars could have been favorable for microbes when the red planet was warmer and wetter.

 So what did Curiosity find after baking the soil and analyzing the resulting gases?

 Water, sulfur and perchlorate, a highly oxidizing salt that was also detected by one of NASA’s previous spacecraft, the Phoenix lander, in the northern Martian latitudes.

 “This is typical, ordinary Martian soil,” said mission scientist Ralf Gellert, of the University of Guelph in Canada.

 The rover did detect hints of a simple carbon compound, but scientists don’t yet know if it’s native to the planet or came from space or Earth.

LOS ANGELES – The unstoppable Voyager 1 spacecraft has sailed into a new realm of the solar system that scientists did not know existed.

Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, launched 35 years ago, have been speeding away from the sun toward interstellar space, or the space between stars.

Over the summer, Voyager 1, which is further along in its journey, crossed into this new region where the effects from the outside can be felt.

“We do believe this may be the very last layer between us and interstellar space,” said chief scientist Ed Stone of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the spacecraft.

Stone presented Voyager 1’s latest location at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Voyager 1 is on track to become the first man-made object to exit the solar system. Exactly when that day will come is unknown, partly because there’s no precedent.

Stone estimated Voyager 1 still has two to three years to travel before reaching the boundary that separates the solar system from the rest of space.

Scientists were surprised to discover the unexpected region at the fringes of the solar system – a testament to the mysteries of space.

For the past year, the team has seen tantalizing clues that heralded a new space environment. The amount of high-energy cosmic rays streaming in from outside the solar system spiked. Meanwhile, the level of lower-energy particles originating from inside the solar system briefly dropped.

Because there was no change in the direction of the magnetic field lines, scientists were confident that Voyager 1 had not yet broken through. They have dubbed this new zone a kind of “magnetic highway.”

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