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Godspeed Voyager 1

By Marshall Connolly (Catholic Online)
September 5th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Have I got a deal for you! She comes fully equipped with a state-of-the-art 8-track player, 68 kilobytes of memory in her onboard computer, and frankly, she runs like a champ. She also hits a top speed of 36,000 mph, and she's low maintenance - you only have to check in on her once a day. She might need some new paint though, because she's a classic '77 model. And just wait until you hear the solid gold record inside!

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Of course, I'm selling you the Voyager 1 spacecraft, a product of amazing human engineering and possibly the pride of the entire human race, as far as spacecraft go. 

Voyager 1 is now approaching both her 35-year anniversary of launch and the transition into interstellar space, as she pierces a great plasma bubble of charged particles that marks the farthest boundary of our solar system. 

Voyager 1 is 11 billion miles distant and is the farthest man-made object from Earth. Her signals take 17 hours to reach the Earth, travelling at the speed of light. Her onboard computer has 100,000 times less memory than your iPod Nano. But her computer's still running and will likely continue for 8 years or so until her plutonium fuel runs out. 

Voyager 1 was launched on September 1, 1977 for flyby missions of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The launch was carefully timed and planned for a relatively rare alignment of the planets that allowed what scientists referred to as a "cosmic billiards shot." Voyager 1 was able to sling herself around Jupiter, then Saturn, and finally the two outer planets in turn, gaining speed with each pass. 

This cosmic billiards shot resulted in an amazing 4-planet flyby which revealed much new information about the planets, especially Neptune and Uranus. It also made Voyager 1 the fastest man-made object in the solar system. 

Voyager is not in perfect working order, however. Most of her instruments have been powered off to preserve battery life, most notably her onboard cameras. Yet other systems continue to work. Right now, Voyager is constantly measuring the number of charged particles around itself. That number is key, because it has recently spiked, suggesting that Voyager 1 is finally exiting the solar system into interstellar space where the solar wind no longer blows. When the value drops, scientists will know Voyager has crossed the boundary. 

Sometime between 2020 and 2025, Voyager 1 will switch off, the last of its plutonium now decayed to the point the craft can no longer function. Voyager will have had an active career of almost 50 years, longer than the working lifespan of some humans. 

After that, Voyager 1 will simply be a silent ambassador to the stars. Sometime around 42,000 AD, Voyager will sail silently past a red dwarf star that is near its path, but this star will be too small to affect its trajectory. Unless the probe is discovered by another intelligent civilization out there - should one exist, it will literally sail through the galaxy and beyond, forever. 

On the off chance that Voyager is discovered by another intelligent civilization, there is a record that will play automatically, containing all the sounds of Earth as well as greetings in hundreds of different languages, and there are directions to our planet. 

Most likely, no human will hear anything again of Voyager 1 after 2025 or so, and if true it will still not be a disappointment. We have learned many great things about our tiny corner of the galaxy thanks to this mission and we have been inspired to learn yet more, and it is this inspiration, above all else, that is the greatest success of Voyager's journey. When you think about that, you realize she's worth every penny of her asking price. 

Godspeed Voyager 1.

 

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