KSJ Tracker December 10, 2012

Big Kahuna in planetary science Ed Stone agrees with the grumbling tracker: Voyager I is NOT about to leave the solar system! It IS entering interstellar space.

Your friendly and amiable tracker has been griping lately about what looks like an egregious and lame epidemic of bad usage by planetary science journalists over the last year or so, and it happened again during coverage of the American Geophysical Union meeting.

    As for instance:

    Edge, schmedge, thinks I. This latest news bump comes on the heels of many pieces in recent months, nearly all referring to an exit from the solar system. Why in the world should the solar system end where the heliosphere, the bubble of hyper-thin gases inflated by the solar wind, poops out and the similarly rarefied interstellar medium - or interstellar space - picks up? Yet this space.com story and the hyper-productive and reliable Ms. Moskowitz are part of a near-universal agreement among reporters that this wobbly bubble whose borders smoosh all over the place somehow marks the end of the solar system. My goodness, what if a big blast of something interstellar were to squash that border someday inside the orbit of Pluto, of the Kuiper belt of distant asteroids and dwarf planets, or of Neptune? They suddenly are not parts of the solar system? C'mon boys and girls, think!

      Clara M. quotes Ed Stone, among the most accomplished leaders of solar system exploration by robot probe (ncluding the Voyager missions) and a former director of the Jet Propulsion Lab. Stone does not say in the story that the spacecraft is leaving the solar system, not in those terms. So I violated my usual sloth as journalism critic and did some journalizing myself. I phoned Professor Stone this morning and put it to him: Is Voyager 1 now leaving, or close to leaving, the solar system?

   "No no no," sayeth interstellar saint Stone. "The term I use is that it is entering interstellar space." Big difference. He went on, "The Oort cloud of comets is way out there beyond where Voyager 1 is. They are in interstellar space. But the comets are part of the solar system." He went on and became very much more forgiving of the press and by misled-extension, the public, than I have been in this and some earlier posts. He said it doesn't much bother him how the event is described. He figures that most people think the solar system is the planets, anyway. Okay, but if that's so why not say Voyager had left the solar system years ago when it left Neptunes orbital distance behind?

    So if you have a shred of respect for language and usage that mean what they suggest, cut it out already, all you space journalists who say Voyager 1 has left the solar system. Not that I think this post will change things much. But to quote the guy who knows the topic, even if he's okay with how it gets described, "No, no, no."

   A few other examples:

Grist for the Mill: Solar System (definition, Websters New World Dictionary): The sun and all the heavenly bodies that revolve around it.

- Charlie Petit


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