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Voyager spacecraft finds solar system is bigger than thought

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 11:06 AM EST, Tue December 4, 2012
An artist's concept of NASA's Voyager spacecraft, which is now about 11 billion miles from the sun, NASA said.
An artist's concept of NASA's Voyager spacecraft, which is now about 11 billion miles from the sun, NASA said.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Voyager 1 is about 11 billion miles from the sun and was launched in 1977
  • Voyager 1 finds new region of solar system, rather than the edge as scientists had predicted
  • Voyager 2 is about 9 billion miles from the sun on a different flight path

(CNN) -- Are we there yet? If you're Voyager 1 and you're looking for a spot beyond the end of our solar system, the answer is no.

NASA officials have been saying for months that Voyager 1 is almost there when it comes to interstellar space as it continues the longest road trip in the history of mankind.

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 took off 16 days apart in 1977, and Voyager 1 is now about 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) from the sun.

On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission put the first humans on the moon. Neil Armstrong famously commemorated his first steps on the moon by saying, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Click through the gallery to see other milestones in space exploration. And go inside "The Space Race" on "The Sixties," Friday, July 25, at 9pET and Saturday, July 26, at 10p ET. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission put the first humans on the moon. Neil Armstrong famously commemorated his first steps on the moon by saying, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Click through the gallery to see other milestones in space exploration. And go inside "The Space Race" on "The Sixties," Friday, July 25, at 9pET and Saturday, July 26, at 10p ET.
Famous firsts in space
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Photos: Famous firsts in space Photos: Famous firsts in space
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity recently encountered this iron meteorite, which NASA named "Lebanon." This find is similar in shape and luster to iron meteorites found on Mars by the previous generation of rovers. The Curiosity rover set off from Earth in November 2011 and landed nearly nine months later -- 99 million miles away. Click through to see more of its images. NASA's Mars rover Curiosity recently encountered this iron meteorite, which NASA named "Lebanon." This find is similar in shape and luster to iron meteorites found on Mars by the previous generation of rovers. The Curiosity rover set off from Earth in November 2011 and landed nearly nine months later -- 99 million miles away. Click through to see more of its images.
Mars rover Curiosity
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Photos: Mars rover Curiosity Photos: Mars rover Curiosity
Water-ice clouds, polar ice and other geographic features can be seen in this full-disk image of Mars from 2011. NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover touched down on the planet on August 6, 2012. Take a look at stunning photographs of Mars over the years. Check out images from the Mars rover Curiosity. Water-ice clouds, polar ice and other geographic features can be seen in this full-disk image of Mars from 2011. NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover touched down on the planet on August 6, 2012. Take a look at stunning photographs of Mars over the years. Check out images from the Mars rover Curiosity.
Exploring Mars
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On Monday, project officials said new information sent back from the ship yielded a surprising result.

"If we would have only looked at particle data alone, we would have said we're out of the solar system," said Tom Krimigis, a scientist from Johns Hopkins University who examines data on low-energy charged particles. "But nature is very imaginative, and Lucy pulled up the football again."

The Voyager team believes this region is where lines of magnetic particles from the solar system are meeting particles from interstellar space.

Because the direction of the magnetic lines is unchanged, the project members count this as part of the solar system. When the direction changes, Voyager 1 will finally be in interstellar space.

"We believe this is the last leg of our journey to interstellar space," said project member Edward Stone of the California Institute of Technology. "Our best guess is it's likely just a few months to a couple years away. The new region isn't what we expected, but we've come to expect the unexpected from Voyager."

The spacecraft entered the new region in July, fueling predictions it was getting close to the edge of the solar system.

Voyager 2, which is on a different flight path, is a few billion miles closer to the sun.

Read more space and science news on CNN's Light Years Blog

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