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Is Voyager 1 still in our solar system? NASA doesn't know

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Voyager 1 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Voyager 1 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In March, more than 35 years after leaving Earth, NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft traveled beyond our solar system and into a new frontier — interstellar space. Or well, maybe not. Shortly after NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced that Voyager 1 had broken into uncharted territory, the original Voyager science team backtracked a bit, saying that its calculations placed the ship within our solar system, albeit in a previously unexplored area. Since then, the debate has only grown. On Thursday, reported that a new study from researchers at the University of Maryland and Boston University argues that Voyager 1 reached interstellar space on July 27, 2012. In response, NASA essentially said that there are conflicting ideas of just where the craft is and, at this point, the agency simply doesn't know.

So what's with the difference of opinion? NASA explained on Thursday that it all comes down to how the borders of our solar system are determined by scientists. The Sun, which sits at the center of our solar system, is so massive that it creates a magnetic field around itself — scientists call this a solar bubble. The area beyond the Sun's magnetic field is what scientists consider interstellar space, which has magnetic fields of its own.

Since Voyager 1's launch in 1977, the spacecraft has been monitoring magnetic fields emitting from the Sun. JPL has been waiting for a dramatic change in direction of the magnetic fields the ship is passing through to determine when it's passed through the solar bubble and into interstellar space. The reason is that NASA believes that the Agree to disagree? direction of magnetic fields in interstellar space runs in a different directional pattern than the field found in the solar bubble. The University of Maryland and Boston University study argues that the magnetic fields inside and outside of the solar bubble actually run in the same direction, and because of this, there is a transitionary area where the solar bubble and interstellar space overlap. This overlap could mean that the edges of our solar system are actually further inward and that Voyager 1 has already crossed over.

After the study was published, NASA said that it and other scientists disagree with U of M and BU's estimation of our solar system's boundaries. "Other models envision the interstellar magnetic field draped around our solar bubble and predict that the direction of the interstellar magnetic field is different from the solar magnetic field inside," the agency says. "By that interpretation, Voyager 1 would still be inside our solar bubble." No matter where the spacecraft is, it's still sending data back to JPL and it's traversing a section of space that no other man-made object has ventured into before. With that in mind, NASA says it will "continue to look for any further developments over the coming months and years."