It was only 2 weeks ago today that the world was captivated by our latest endeavour in space exploration: the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars. No doubt it was a great achievement and the science data that the rover will bring back to us will undoubtedly further our understanding of our red celestial sister in ways that we can’t possibly fathom yet. Still Curiosity achievement was only possible due to the great amount of work that came before it in the form of dozens of other space problems, numerous landers and of course other roving space craft. There is one craft in particular that has had so much to do with space exploration (and that just crossed a major milestone) that I feel it bears mentioning.
That craft is Voyager 1.
On August 20, 1977 NASA launched the first of two craft in the Voyager program. At the time the alignment of all the planets in our solar system was quite favourable, allowing a probe to be able to visit all of the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) without having to use much propellant or having to spend a lot of time travelling between them thanks to the gravity assists it could get from each of the giants. Indeed the recently launched New Horizons craft that will be visiting Pluto sometime in 2015 will have a speed of roughly 15KM/s which is about 2KM/s slower than Voyager’s current speed showing you just how much those gravity assists helped.
Voyager 1’s primary mission was to study the planets of the outer solar system and it made quite a few interesting discoveries. On its approach to Jupiter Voyager 1 noticed that it actually had rings like Saturn’s although they were much to faint to see with any earth bound telescopes at the time. Voyager 1 also discovered that Io was volcanically active, something that the previous Pioneer probes and earth based observatories had failed to see. It’s encounter with Saturn provided some incredible insights into Titan however this precluded it from being able to visit any of the other planets in the grand tour due to it missing out on the potential gravitational boost and trajectory alignment that Saturn could have provided. Still this set it up for it’s ultimate mission: to study interstellar space.
Whilst Voyager’s list of scientific achievements is long and extremely admirable there are actually 2 non-scientific things that keep it stuck in my mind. The first is something that Voyager 1 (and its sister craft) carries on board with it: the Voyager Golden Record. Contained on the record that’s made from materials designed to withstand the harsh environment of space are recordings of various classical music, pictures of earth as well as pictograms that depict how the record should be used by anyone who finds it. Since Voyager 1 will be the first interstellar craft it is quite possible that one day another form of intelligent life will come across it and the record will serve as an introduction to the human species. It’s an absolutely beautiful idea and symbolizes the human desire to reach further and further beyond our limits, something that I believe is a driving force behind all of our space exploration.
The second was a picture and whilst I could go on about its significance I think there’s someone much better qualified than me to do so:
It’s sometimes hard to believe that we’ve managed to create something that’s lasted for 35 years in the harshest environment that we know of. The fact is though that we did, we designed it, built it and launched it into the great unknown and because of that we’ve been able to reap the rewards of undertaking such a challenging endeavour. I find projects like these incredibly inspiring; they show that through determination, hard work and good old fashioned science we can achieve things that we never thought possible. I am truly grateful to be alive in such times and I know that the future will only bring more like this.
Happy birthday Voyager 1.