By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor
As clocks fall back and days get shorter here in Washington, D.C., I’m sorely missing the warm embrace of the sun. The months between now and the return of summer heat already feel like an eternity to my Texan blood. So I can barely imagine how strange things must be for the twin Voyager spacecraft, both of which are now the only probes that have left the sun’s sphere of influence and are cruising deep into interstellar space, roughly 11 billion miles away from our home star.
Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 took different routes through the outer solar system, each touring the gas giant planets before bending toward separate spots along the heliopause, the boundary zone between the sun’s constant stream of plasma and the diffuse debris field that is the interstellar medium. Voyager 1 crossed first, becoming humankind’s first interstellar object in 2012. Now, as our Michael Greshko reports, NASA has confirmed that Voyager 2 finally punched through last year, and it is seeing some unexpected conditions out there on the solar fringes.
For me, the Voyager mission is as emotional as any Oscar-worthy drama. Both craft carry copies of the iconic Golden Record, a literal labor of love that spreads a message of human dreams and accomplishments. They are the very definition of explorers, venturing into a part of the universe that no one on Earth can truly comprehend. The excitement they spark is bittersweet, as they both sail ever farther from home, never to return. I can’t help but feel a little choked up as I imagine them speeding through the void. But I am also on the edge of my chair as new results from these long-lived probes roll in, revealing new wonders with each turn of the clock.
Do you get this daily? If not, sign up here or forward to a friend.
Today in a minute
Sea rise: The United States officially has begun the process of pulling out of the Paris Agreement, which had been struck to try to cut carbon emissions to slow the earth's warming. New research shows that even if worldwide leaders complied with the agreement, sea levels will still slosh higher, about 3 feet higher by 2300. Researchers say their work is a call to action. “We can clearly see that there’s a massive sea level rise contribution coming from emissions over such a short time frame, just over the Paris period,” says Alexander Nauels, the lead author of the report and a sea level rise expert at Climate Analytics. “But this is risk we can reduce, by all means, if we can, and it seems like we can.”
Sea hunt: At the bottom of the sea is lead, in the hold of galleons that sunk centuries ago. That lead is suddenly valuable. It has been shielded from everyday radiation in the Nuclear Age, and most of its natural radiation has long since dissipated. That makes it ideal for particle-physics experiments, able to shield other materials from radiation that would hurt our ability to find out secrets of the universe, The Atlantic reports. Among those elusive targets of these experiments: dark matter, the unseen glue within and between galaxies.
Toxic fumes: How has our health been affected by the massive increase of wildfires in places such as California? Scientists are researching how air pollution from these huge fires may make lasting changes to health. One concern: If the small particles from smoke and ash enter the bloodstream, they could endanger the heart, Sarah Gibbens reports.
Another reason to vaccinate: Two studies look at a detrimental side effect to not vaccinating, Maya Wei-Haas writes. It’s called immune amnesia. When the body’s immune system suffers a measles infection, the disease causes it to forget how to fight off other things that it has already conquered. Conversely, researchers note drops in other diseases such as pneumococcus and diarrhea after widespread adoption of measles vaccinations.
The plastic north: Levels of microplastics in the Arctic are among the highest on Earth. Why? One hypothesis: because northbound Atlantic water cools and sinks near the southern edge of the Arctic Ocean, setting in motion a powerful ocean current system. But plastic, which is buoyant, stays behind. The plastic gets in the bloodstream of the fish and animals there, and the people who eat that wildlife.
Solutions in bulk? You want to do something about cutting down on supermarket packaging and plastic waste? Maybe, Eater suggests, you should push to make sure your local market has more than one aisle devoted to bulk packaging. (Of course, you should make sure you use that aisle, too.)
Your Instagram photo of the day
Learning from the past. An attempt to bring back an ancient Andean form of agriculture marks Peruvian land near Lake Titicaca. The Tiahuanaco, a pre-Inca people, discovered that raised beds could increase crop fertility and prevent frost in this basin, at 12,000 feet above sea level. Quinoa has become the cash crop of these high-altitude farmers. Related: Ancient Inca technology could save sacred Lake Titicaca
Are you one of our 125 million Instagram followers? (If not, follow us now.) +
This week in the night sky
Mercury sails across the sun. On Monday morning, the innermost planet will appear to glide silently across the disk of the sun. Such so-called transits of Mercury occur only when the small world is aligned perfectly between Earth and our star. They occur roughly 13 times a century, and the next transit is in 2032. See this year’s transit through solar-filtered telescopes across the Americas, New Zealand, Europe, Africa, and western Asia. The sky show begins at 7:36 a.m ET when the tiny planet’s disk first touches the edge of the sun. The planet will reach midpoint at 1:04 p.m. ET and leave the solar disk at 2:42 p.m. A quick correction from last week: The Earth and moon are indeed 1.3 light seconds apart. —Andrew Fazekas
The big takeaway
A reluctant warrior. In an ideal world, physicist Emma Chapman would be singularly engrossed researching the early evolution of the universe. Now, however, she also has become a role model for women scientists and a champion to end workplace harassment. She became outspoken about the topic after being harassed by a senior colleague at University College London. “I found myself dropped into a very uncomfortable culture,” Chapman told writer Angela Saini for National Geographic. Now active in a small U.K. group working to end sexual misconduct in academia, Chapman estimates that a hundred women have so far approached her for help and advice. Her three-word message to universities: Believe the victims.
Want a newsletter every day?
Tomorrow, ANIMALS Executive Editor Rachael Bale explores the wonder of bird migration. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here.
One last glimpse
Ah, Europa. A rare look shows three moons and their shadows parading across Jupiter on January 24, 2015. Europa has entered the frame at lower left. Slower-moving Callisto is above and to the right of Europa. Fastest-moving Io is approaching the eastern limb of the planet. Europa's shadow is toward the left side of the image, and Callisto's shadow is to the right.