Sunday, June 30, 2013

36 years later

Voyager 1, NASA's interplanetary spacecraft, is nearing the very edge of our solar system. 

Still going strong after 36 years and sending back info to scientists. (about 16 hours for a radio signal) They know Voyager is on the edge of the sun's heliosphere because the solar wind that has buffeted the craft for four decades has suddenly almost flat-lined.
The bubble-like boundary that divides the sun's influence from interstellar space is losing grip. Analysis of the cosmic ray and energetic particle data tells this time story of Voyager 1.
At the same time, levels of incoming galactic particles coming from outside our solar system have skyrocketed. The magnetic field will suddenly change soon, indicating Voyager is entering a new realm of the stars. 

The only other time Voyager sensed this confusion of data, was 34 years ago as it entered the magnetisphere of Jupitor and scientists thought the space-craft might have failed! Then it came alive again after passing the huge planet and many believed whatever was on Jupitor may have jammed the systems of Voyager so we Earthlings wouldn't learn what was happening inside those violent storms. 

Anyway, Voyager is now poised to actually make it's way into the Milky Way galaxy! Traveling at 38,000 miles per hour, scientists believe it could exit our solar neighborhood within the year. 

Voyager 1, weighing 1590 lbs, was launched by NASA on September 5, 1977. It is powered by a nuclear reactor and is estimated to work until about 2022. In 1990 scientists turned off the cameras to conserve energy and the heaters on the backup thrusters, the fuel lines will eventually freeze. These tactics have extended the life of our little space scout. In 2016, they might turn off the gyros that allow maneuvering the probe, leaving Voyager 1 alone and rudderless. And even if we seem to be ignoring our intrepid voyager because we can no longer send instructions, it's fail-safe mechanisms will automatically go into a set pattern of activities and will send things to us anyway. 

In 1990, at the request of astronomer Carl Sagan, Voyager's camera was turned toward Earth one last time, to take a goodbye picture from 3.7 billion miles away. Called Pale Blue Dot. 
Does the photo contrast how insignificant we humans seem to be, with how exceptional we can be?
After 36 years and 11 billion miles Voyager 1 is a proud achievement of human-kind, the first Earth instrument passing amid the stars. Let's hope the journey is serendipitous and that Voyager sends a friendly message someday to another intelligent entity as it crosses this threshold of space into eternity. 
And maybe we'll get one in return.

Perhaps one that our great grandchildren can excitedly read.

CONTACT! Thank you Voyager.

PS: Voyager 2, out there for 33 years, is apparently still healthy and working just fine.

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