Artist's rendering provided by NASA shows Voyager spacecraft.
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL (Florida Today) -- NASA's Voyager 1 is zipping along a newly detected "magnetic highway" that will lead the spacecraft out of the solar system within the next few years, scientists said Tuesday.
Some 11 billion miles from the sun, the new region is at the farthest reaches of the solar system and probably is the last one the spacecraft will cross before entering interstellar space.
But scientists still aren't exactly certain when the spacecraft -- which was launched from Cape Canaveral 35 years ago -- will exit the solar system and become an enterprizing starship.
"We don't know exactly how long it will take. It might take several months. It could take several more years," said Voyager Project Scientist Edward Stone of California Institute of Technology.
"But we do believe this might be the very last layer between us and interstellar space," he said. "It is that magnetic highway that is really connecting us to the outside."
Discovery of the far-out freeway was serendipitous. Data beamed back from Voyager 1 in late July and August showed the spacecraft was in a region that was like a divided highway.
Spacecraft instruments detected low-energy particles streaming out of the solar system. At the same, time, high-energy cosmic rays were streaming into the solar system from interstellar space. So scientists think Voyager 1 is in a region that connects the solar system with outer space.
Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, were launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station 16 days apart in August and September 1977.
Voyager 1 explored Jupiter and Saturn. Its twin flew by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and is nine billion miles from the sun. Both spacecraft are probing the boundaries of the solar system, and Voyager 1 is expected to be the first man-made spacecraft to exit the solar system and enter interstellar space.