SpaceX touches down in California as Voyager 2 spies interstellar space

Musk's mighty missile no match for the plucky probe that could

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SpaceX were cock-a-hoop this morning as the company landed its first booster at California's Vandenburg Air Force Base. NASA merely coughed politely and pointed toward its Voyager 2 probe, which looks to be about to enter interstellar space.

SpaceX SAOCOM success

SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster left its launchpad at Space Launch Complex 4e (SLC-4E) at 02:22 UTC this morning, giving Californians an impressive overhead display of pyrotechnics.

With Argentina's SAOCOM 1A satellite onboard, the Falcon 9 performed nominally as the first stage burned to its cut-off point just after the two-minute mark. The second stage then kicked into life and continued firing until the 10-minute mark. Just past 12 minutes after leaving the Earth, the satellite was deployed.

The star of the show remains the block 5 Falcon 9 booster, which stands over 40 metres tall. After completing a boostback burn following separation, the rocket headed back to the launch site, touching down on Landing Zone 4 less than eight minutes following lift-off. This marks the first time a Falcon 9 has returned to dry land on the West Coast rather than drone-ship at sea.

The launch was the second for this particular first stage, which saw its debut in July when 10 Iridium satellites were flung into orbit. It is expected that, as a block 5 booster, this Falcon 9 first stage will fly again before long.

The 1,600kg SAOCOM 1A (PDF) satellite is expected to enjoy a lifetime of at least five years and is equipped with a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). The satellite will be joined by a sibling, SAOCOM 1B, in 2019 and is designed to support agriculture, mitigate against floods and emergencies and generate soil moisture maps.

The launch continues SpaceX's run of success and comes just over two years after the loss of the Amos-6 satellite due to some iffy practices at the Florida launchpad.

Voyager 2 about to go where, er, Voyager 1 has been for a while?

NASA has announced that its veteran probe Voyager 2 may be about to leave the solar system. Voyager 2 is currently about 17.7 billion kilometres from Earth after best part of 41 years.

Scientists have been gradually turning off instruments on the spacecraft in order to eke out its remaining reserves of power for as long as possible. And also because, frankly, there is little point in keeping cameras that were designed to look at planets activated when there are no more planets to look at.

One of the instruments that is still powered up, the Cosmic Ray Subsystem, has measured a 5 per cent increase in cosmic rays hitting the spacecraft compared to the same time in August. The Low Energy Charged Particle Instrument has gathered similar results.

Voyager 1 experienced a similar change three months before it crossed the heliopause and headed out into interstellar space. The fact that Voyager 2 is reaching this point six years behind its sibling is also significant because the heliopause moves in and out during the Sun's activity cycle.

It is vaguely astonishing that the spacecraft continues to be able to do useful science after so long in space and at such mind-boggling distances. Voyager project scientist Ed Stone remarked: "We're going to learn a lot more in the coming months, but we still don't know when we'll reach the heliopause."

Boffins expect to have to start turning off the remaining instruments on Voyager 2 in 2020, with the last one shutting down in 2025. ®


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