NASA announced a monumental event this month; The renowned spacecraft known as Voyager 1 has exited our solar system.Thirty-six years ago, Voyager 1 departed Cape Canaveral on September 5, 1977 atop of a Titan-Centaur launch vehicle, joining sister ship Voyager 2 which was already en route to Jupiter.Voyager 2 had been hurled into space by her own Titan-Centaur two weeks earlier on August 20, 1977.
The twin spacecraft followed complex, pre-programmed orbits on a shared mission of capturing images and data on the solar system’s largest planets.Together, the Voyager spacecrafts executed close-up fly-by visits to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and a total of 48 of their moons.
It took nearly two years for the spacecrafts to reach Jupiter. Voyager 2 paid visits to all four of the giants over the course of ten years, from Jupiter in July of 1979 to Neptune in August of 1989.Voyager 1 saw Jupiter close-up in March of 1979 and Saturn in November of 1980.Seventeen years later, in February of 1998, Voyager 1 caught up to Pioneer 10 (launched in 1972) and became what NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory refers to as “humankind's most distant object.”
Voyager 1 is the first manmade item to go interstellar – That is, traveling beyond our Solar System.Voyager 1’s odometer now reads in excess of 11,647,362,655 miles (125.3 AU).Traveling at a speed exceeding 38,000 miles per hour (3.6 AU per year) for the past 36 years.And it still works.
Voyager 2 is loping along at a mere 35,000 miles per hour (3.3 AU per year).Having taken a couple of detours that Voyager 1 did not have scheduled, Voyager 2 is over 2 billion miles behind.The Voyager 2 odometer reading is around 9,537,265,829 (102.6 AU) and will join her sister ship at the solar system’s edge in 2020 after seven more years of straight-line coasting.
To get an idea of how far away Voyager 1 is now, imagine the Sun as the size of a basketball. Relative Earth would be the size of a BB, orbiting about 100 feet away.In that scale, Voyager would be nearly one mile beyond Earth.
In the period since the Voyagers left Earth, the Space Shuttle program was inaugurated and mothballed.William Shatner starred as the protagonist in Star Trek: The Motion Picture in which Voyager 1 was featured as the antagonist. And right about the time that Voyager 1 flew past Pluto, the poor thing got degraded from full planet status.
In 1977, sporting a dilettante interest in UFOs, then President Jimmy Carter participated in developing the first truly universal message, included on board each of the Voyager Spacecraft. Both Voyagers were equipped with a gold plated phonograph record with cartridge and needle all ready to play by whoever should run across them in the outermost layers of the heliosphere.
According to NASA, both records contain “115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim.”
And finally, nearly thirty years after the establishment of SETI (you remember – that “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence” organization on which the Jodi Foster movie Contact was based), intelligent messages are finally being received from outer space.The best guess that scientist have ventured in interpreting the alien messaging is, “Thank you for the flux capacitor gasket. Do not fall for that global warming trick.And most important, do not choose the one known as Barack Obama as your leader.He is not from Earth.”
OK, that last part was a joke. But give me credit for passing on all the obvious wisecracks about Uranus.