Monday, December 20, 2010

Farthest artificial object from Earth

Launched September 5th 1977, while Jimmy Carter was still president. Voyager 1 spacecraft has traveled more than 10 billion miles in space. It's now well past the orbit of Pluto and still sending data back to Earth about the boundary area between solar wind and interstellar space.

Artist's rendition of Voyager from NASA and Wikipedia.

Traveling at 10.5 miles per second (that's from around downtown Bellingham to Ferndale every second!) it's moving. The universe is so large that it would still take this craft over 80,000 years to get to the nearest star.

Why is it making news now?

Scientists are confirming that it has reached another goal in it's long journey. A region where the outward motion of solar wind stops. Probably just a few more years till this probe reaches the environment of interstellar space.

What does that mean? Lot's to astronomers. Instruments on board the craft are still measuring the nature of charged particles. Learning about the energy and magnetic environment farther and farther away from the sun.

33 years of science from one spacecraft launched when I was in college and more to come. On it's way out of the solar system, Voyager 1 passed Jupiter and Saturn returning lots of photos.

There's also a sister ship named Voyager 2. After also taking pictures of Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 2 sped past Uranus and Neptune getting the only close up images we've had of those distant planets. Neptune in 1989. Voyager 2 is also headed out of the solar system, but on a different route so it isn't as far out as Voyager 1. It went the "scenic route" past Neptune; so to speak.

That's a lot of scientific "bang for the buck."

How are these spacecrafts powered?

Well, they are just coasting out into space. Without air resistance, they can just coast once being revved up to speed. The electric power to run their radios and instruments comes from plutonium generators. Like little nuclear reactors, the plutonium in their "RTG" units keeps giving off energy. Eventually the heat will run out, but NASA expects these spacecraft to have several more years of life.

Several more years of learning about the outer reaches of our solar system.

When launched in 1977, scientists put some information on a plaque and I think even a CD (new technology back then) which was placed on board the spacecrafts. This is an "information brochure;" so to speak in case its ever found by some alien civilization. It's basically a "hello" and introduction to Earth as it was in 1977.

Kind of a cosmic version for "chamber of commerce brochure."

That's catering to a possible audience which may not read the brochure for thousands, or even millions, of years.

It's called long range planning. Thousands of years beyond the next quarter's profit statement. Now that's human thinking at it's finest.

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