By today’s standards, the spacecraft’s technology is laughable: it carries an 8-track tape recorder and computers with one-240,000th the memory of a low-end iPhone. When it left Earth 36 years ago, it was designed as a four-year mission to Saturn, and everything after that was gravy.I'm old enough to remember when Voyager I and II were launched (although I'm not old enough to remember 8 tracks). And before I keep going, forgive the non-criminology/sociology flavor of the post, but I am exercising some personal discretion here as author of the blog to post about a topic near and dear to me, and that is space travel (see also this post, among others). Actually, I get a little economic and sociological at the end.
But Voyager 1 has become — thrillingly — the Little Spacecraft That Could. On Thursday, scientists declared that it had become the first probe to exit the solar system, a breathtaking achievement that NASA could only fantasize about back when Voyager was launched in 1977, the same year “Star Wars” was released.“I don’t know if it’s in the same league as landing on the moon, but it’s right up there — ‘Star Trek’ stuff, for sure,” said Donald A. Gurnett, a physics professor at the University of Iowa
Even among planetary scientists, who tend to dream large, the idea that something they built could travel beyond the Sun’s empire and keep grinding away is impressive. Plenty of telescopes gaze at the far parts of the Milky Way, but Voyager 1 can now touch and feel the cold, unexplored region in between the stars and send back detailed dispatches about conditions there. It takes 17 hours and 22 minutes for Voyager’s signals to reach NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory here.Which is incredible, if you think about. It takes 17 hours to get a message 11 billion miles from a 36 year old space craft that is running on AA batteries, and AT&T drops about half the calls I make here on a regular basis.
At a news conference on Thursday, NASA scientists were a bit vague about what they hope to get from Voyager 1 from now on. The answer, to some extent, depends on what instruments continue to function as the power supply dwindles. Dr. Stone expects Voyager 1 to keep sending back data — with a 23-watt transmitter, about the equivalent of a refrigerator light bulb — until roughly 2025.And then both come back in 2273 as V'Ger.
In its heyday, Voyager 1 pumped out never-before-seen images of Jupiter and Saturn. But it stopped sending home pictures in 1990, to conserve energy and because there was no longer much to see. A companion spacecraft, Voyager 2, also launched in 1977, has stopped sending back images as well. Voyager 2 is moving in a different direction but is also expected to exit the solar system.
That these craft are still working is nothing short of amazing. People were listening to radios on transistors back in those days. The idea that you could send what is basically a transistor radio 11.7 billion miles from Earth, "hurtling away at 38,000 miles per hour," and have it still sending back signals 36 years late, is beyond comprehension.
Voyager 1 has achieved what Dr. Gurnett called “the holy grail of heliosphere research.” Voyager 1 left the solar system the same month that Curiosity, NASA’s state-of-the-art rover, landed on Mars and started sending home gorgeous snapshots. Curiosity’s exploration team, some 400 strong, promptly dazzled the world by driving the $2.5 billion robot across a patch of Martian terrain, a feat that turned the Red Bull-chugging engineers and scientists of Building 264 of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus into rock stars. By comparison, the Voyager mission looked like a Betamax in the era of Bluetooth.
The 12-person Voyager staff was long ago moved from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus to cramped quarters down the street, next to a McDonald’s. In an interview last month at Voyager’s offices, Suzanne R. Dodd, the Voyager project manager, said that when she attended meetings in Building 264, she kept a low profile in deference to the Mars team.