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WASHINGTON (AFP) – Never before has a human-built spacecraft traveled so far. NASA’s Voyager 1 probe has now left the solar system and is wandering the galaxy, American scientists said Thursday.

The spacecraft was launched in 1977 on a mission to explore the outer planets of our solar system and to possibly journey into the unknown depths of outer space.

“This is the first time that humanity has been able to step outside of the cradle of the solar system to explore the larger galaxy,” Marc Swisdak, an astrophysicist at the University of Maryland, told AFP.

The precise position of Voyager has been fiercely debated in the past year, because scientists have not known exactly what it would look like when the spacecraft crossed the boundary of the solar system — and the tool on board that was meant to detect the change broke long ago.

However, American space agency scientists now agree that Voyager is officially outside the protective bubble known as the heliosphere that extends at least eight billion miles (13 billion kilometers) beyond all the planets in our solar system, and has entered a cold, dark region known as interstellar space.

Their findings — which describe the conditions that show Voyager actually left the solar system in August 2012 — are published in the U.S. journal Science.

“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 a statement by John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

The twin spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, were launched in 1977 on a primary mission to explore Jupiter and Saturn.

They discovered new details about the nature of Saturn’s rings and found volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io.

Voyager 2 traveled on to Uranus and Neptune, before the duo’s mission was extended to explore the outer limits of the Sun’s influence.

Voyager 1 — with Voyager 2 a few years behind in its travels to the edge of the solar system — sent back data to scientists on Earth on August 25 last year, showing an abrupt drop in energetic charged particles, or cosmic rays, that are produced inside the heliosphere.

Scientists expected that the direction of the magnetic field in space would reverse at the barrier known as the heliopause.

The Voyager 1 magnetometer did not show this change, leading scientists to be extra cautious about declaring whether or not the spacecraft had left the solar system.

However, an analysis of data from Voyager’s plasma wave science instrument between April 9 and May 22 this year showed the spacecraft was in a region with an electron density of about 0.08 per cubic centimeter.

Astrophysicists have projected that the density of electrons in interstellar space would be between 0.05 and 0.22 per cubic centimeter, placing Voyager squarely in that range.

“Now that we have new, key data, we believe this is humankind’s historic leap into interstellar space,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “The Voyager team needed time to analyze those observations and make sense of them. But we can now answer the question we’ve all been asking: ‘Are we there yet?’ Yes, we are.”

While the Voyager team has reached a consensus, not all are convinced.

“I don’t think it’s a certainty Voyager is outside now,” space physicist David McComas of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas told Science magazine.

“It may well have crossed,” he said. “But without a magnetic field direction change, I don’t know what to make of it.”

The spacecraft is expected to keep cruising for now, though the radioisotope thermo-electric generators that power it are beginning to run down.

Voyager’s instruments will have to shut down permanently in 2025, Science reported. NASA spends $5 million per year to operate the twin spacecraft.

“Even though it took 36 years, it’s just an amazing thing to me,” said co-author Bill Kurth, of the University of Iowa. “I think the Voyager mission is a much grander voyage of humankind than anyone had dreamed.”

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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Donald Trump Now Leads An Authoritarian Movement

Politico Magazine published an article Thursday that perfectly embodies the failures of tabloid-style political journalism to address the fundamental dangers facing the country: “145 Things Donald Trump Did in His First Year as the Most Consequential Former President Ever.”

“In ways both absurd and serious, the 45th president refused to let go of the spotlight or his party and redefined what it means to be a former leader of the free world,” the article sub-headline states, sitting above a colorful image containing a photo of a smiling Trump and images that have defined his post-presidency, including his second impeachment, golf clubs, and a vaccination needle.

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