Alpha Centauri -- or bust: Voyager is going where no machine has gone before

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NASA scientists believe that on or around Aug. 25, 2012, Voyager 1, which left Earth on Sept. 5, 1977, officially crossed into the badlands of interstellar space.

Now roughly 11.5 billion miles into a journey that included scenic views of gas giants Jupiter and Saturn along with the icy outer planets Uranus, Neptune and recently demoted planet Pluto, Voyager 1 is no longer subject to the vagaries of the sun's solar winds.

After completing its primary mission in 1989, the nuclear-powered probe lit out for parts unknown ahead of its twin, Voyager 2. Of the two probes launched within weeks of each other, only Voyager 1 has managed to escape the familiar confines of the heliosphere, the plasma shield that embraces every comet, asteroid, moon and planet in our solar system.

The champagne would've come out a year ago, but there was some debate -- and still is in some quarters -- about whether Voyager 1 had breached the heliosphere. Scientists were originally looking for more tell-tale signs that Voyager 1 had crossed into the unexplored region of space between our sun and the nearest star.

After sifting through the data, the new scientific consensus is that Voyager 1 is enveloped in galactic plasma far beyond our sun's solar bubble. It will continue transmitting data until its nuclear generator quits sometime after 2025. After that, it will drift toward Alpha Centauri. That part of Voyager's magical mystery tour will take another 40,000 years if the cosmic winds are with it.

Because that celebration is so far off, maybe it's time for mankind to pop the champagne anyway.

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