Day 7 of Project 31 – a Buttons Blog for every day of December.
I’d like to talk a little bit about Voyager.
Now now, what’s with the groans? I don’t mean the one borne out of Gene Roddenberry’s socialist utopia where money has gone the way of the dinosaur, guilt-sodden women from Indiana captain starships and Emergency Medical Holograms gain voting rights. Wow! What a future! I’m talking about Voyager 1, launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on 5 September 1977. Despite the fact that its primary mission, which included the closest ever fly-by of both Jupiter and Saturn, ended on 20 November 1980, Voyager 1 has kept going, and is now close to leaving the Solar System behind and heading outward into interstellar Space.
Voyager 1 was one of two probes launched by NASA in the autumn of 1977; its sister, Voyager 2 was launched 2 weeks earlier on 20 August. But although it launched later, Voyager 1 reached both Jupiter and Saturn sooner, having followed a shorter trajectory.
Voyager 1 began photographing Jupiter in January 1979 and made its closest approach on 5 March of that year. Then, following a successful gravitational sling-shot around Jupiter, it reached Saturn by November 1980 and made its closest approach on the 12th of the month. It was the first space probe to provide detailed images of the two largest planets and their moons. After Saturn, the possibility existed to re-program Voyager 1 to use another sling-shot trajectory to steer it out to a fly-by of Pluto (at that time considered to be the farthest most planet). However, this option was not taken and a closer inspection of Saturn’s moon, Titan was decided upon. It was this decision which ultimately ended Voyager 1‘s primary mission and lead to its present (eternal) one.
At time of writing, scientists have reported that Voyager 1 is within imminent reach of the Heliopause; a theoretical boundary where the Sun’s solar wind is no longer strong enough to push back the stellar winds of the surrounding stars. In other words, the absolute limit of our Sun’s influence – the external limit of our Solar System. Once Voyager 1 passes this threshold, it will truly have reached outer space.
Each of the Voyager space probes carries a gold-plated audio-visual disc in the event that either spacecraft is ever found by intelligent life. The discs carry photos of the Earth and its lifeforms, a range of scientific information, spoken greetings from people (among them, the then Secretary General of the United Nations (Kurt Waldheim) and the President of the United States (Jimmy Carter), as well as the children of the Planet Earth). The discs also carry a medley of the Sounds of Earth. These include the sounds of whales, a baby crying, waves breaking on a shore, and a collection of Earth music, including works by Mozart and Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode.
Ah, the Seventies!
On 14 February 1990, Voyager 1 took the first ever family portrait of our Solar System as seen from outside,which includes the famous image known as Pale Blue Dot. The photograph was taken at the request of the astronomer, Carl Sagan. After work on the Saturn project had been completed, Sagan began promoting the idea of the spacecraft taking one last picture of Earth. He pointed out at the time that the picture would not be terribly scientific, as the Earth would appear too small for the Voyager‘s cameras to make out any detail, but that such a picture might be useful as a perspective on our place in the cosmos. At first, NASA scientists were sceptical and a whole host of lay-offs and staff re-deployments almost prevented it being taken. Ultimately however, it was, and just as Sagan suggested, it provided humanity with a unique glance in the mirror.
Sagan offered his thoughts on the photograph in his book, A Vision of the Human Future in Space;
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
Voyager 1 is expected to continue operating until at least 2025 and is likely to remain the farthest man-made object from Earth.