The Voyager 1 probe has now officially become the first man-made object to leave our solar system.
It comes as a culmination of a 36-year dream for Nasa who said it was a scientific and historic milestone, and that it would allow humans to understand what exists in interstellar space for the first time.
"This is really a key milestone that we’d been hoping we would reach when we started this project over 40 years ago – that we would get a spacecraft into interstellar space," said Professor Ed Stone, the original Nasa project scientist on Voyager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Described as the "little spacecraft that could", Voyager was originally intended for a near-earth mission to study Jupiter and Saturn. But after it completed that stage in 1989, together with the Voyager 2 probe, the pair were steered towards deep space.
Voyager 2 trails behind and may take another three years before joining its twin on the other side of the solar divide.
"Voyager has boldly gone where no probe has gone before marking one of the most significant technological achievements in the annals of the history of science," said John Grunsfeld, Nasa’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.
It will now study exotic particles and other phenomena in a never-before-explored part of the universe and radio the data back to Earth. But being almost 12billion miles from earth means radio signals take 17 hours to reach NASA receivers.
Voyager 1 carries a gold-plated disc containing multicultural greetings, songs and photos, in case it bumps into an intelligent species.
"It took us 10 seconds to realize we were in interstellar space," said Don Gurnett, a Voyager scientist at the University of Iowa who led the latest research, published in the journal Science.
But the Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell was sceptical. "I’m actually not going to believe it for another year or two until it’s been solidly outside for a while," he said.
Eventually, the Voyagers will run out of plutonium fuel and will have to power down their instruments, perhaps by 2025.
Voyager 1 is responsible for the famous ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image, was was taken in 1990 2.7bn miles from Earth. In his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, astronomer Carl Sagan said:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
Poignant, I’m sure you’d agree.
Pale Blue Dot, with Earth barely visbile mid-right