Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Voyager 1 - Almost Outta the Ballpark

The Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched in 1977 by NASA.  Along with Voyager 2, Voyager 1 gave humanity some epic images of the outer planets of our solar system, and also launched many new endeavors in planetary science (from the discovery of a potential ice shell over an ocean on Europa, volcanoes on Io, and even to the thick atmosphere of Titan...).  The "Grand Tour" of the outer planets was grand indeed.  Now, Voyager 1 is alone in the dark.

At a distance of over 120 astronomical units away, Voyager 1 is still operating, still sending data back to Earth, and is still the most distant human-made object.  That distance is impressive, not just for the half of a day it takes for information to return to us from the spacecraft, but also because Voyager 1 is poised to be the first extension of humanity to officially leave our solar system!  But, there's some trouble.  We don't actually know where the edge of our solar system is.  We have models to suggest that the heliopause (the region where the sun's influence effectively ends and the rest of our galaxy begins, to put it in conceptual terms) is just about where Voyager 1 is right now.  In fact, Voyager 1 has, for quite some time, been traveling through the heliosheath, the final region before the heliopause.  For some time, it has been predicted that Voyager 1 would soon hit the heliopause itself, but new data suggest the heliosheath region may be larger than we previously thought (Article from NewScientist).

Any way it goes, I'm still very hopeful that Voyager 1 will pass through the heliopause and officially leave our solar system sometime while the spacecraft's instruments and computers can still operate well enough to let us know this has happened.  The craft has been in space for 35 years, but should still have about 15 more years of power.  If Voyager 1 does make it to the heliopause and beyond while still operational, you can bet I'll be having a whiskey to celebrate!

In about 17,500 years, Voyager 1 will have officially traveled a full light-year in distance.  And, in about 40,000 years it will pass within about 1.6 light-years of a star in the constellation Camelopardalis.  After that, who knows?

Maybe some day, millions of years from now, some intelligent being from another region of the galaxy will come upon the Voyager 1 spacecraft.  Perhaps such a being would look at the craft and wonder about its makers.  Perhaps they would be able to decipher the markings on the gold disk, and, if the disk will still play, maybe such a being could manage to hear the voices of humans and maybe come to know something about us.  And, for a sci-fi twist, maybe, just as in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, this being would restructure Voyager 1 and give the craft its own robotic intelligence.  Would an intelligent Voyager 1 wish to return home?  Would it try to come back and find us?  I wouldn't say it's impossible.

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