Voyager continues incredible journey

Ladies and gentlemen, Voyager has left the solar system.

And in doing so, the little space probe has gone where nothing man-made has gone before.

It’s of value to astronomers and of interest to space fanciers, but it’s also a significant moment for every human being. It’s the first time an object manufactured by human beings has traveled to interstellar space.

Insignificant, perhaps, in terms of day-to-day value for most of us, but there is a matter of the spirit of curiosity and exploration and pioneering that should ignite interest in everyone.

Voyager was launched on a September morning 36 years ago, and made spectacular passes to gather data about the big outermost planets of the solar system.

NASA continues its mission with Voyager, though the probe will not be reaching anymore celestial bodies during its lifetime. Voyager is expected to run out of power sometime in 2020. It will continue operating its particle analysis and magnetic field monitors. Operators of the spacecraft will begin turning off its instruments one by one until the spacecraft finally dies about 2025.

It is an amazing feat on several levels. First, it is a triumph of the early Space Age, when the technology was nowhere near as powerful as what exists today. Engineers created a device that will, when it finally is turned off, have operated for nearly 50 years in space.

Second, it has moved beyond the influence of our sun and is being hit by materials from other stars, giving scientists a treasure trove of opportunity to learn about the galaxy.

And third, there is the golden record aboard. Assuming the possibility that Voyager could eventually encounter a spacecraft or beings from another planet, a recording of greetings from Earth were placed aboard. That record is the genesis of science fiction stories about what could happen if it was ever heard by aliens. The possibilities are beyond remote that it could encounter another life form and that they happen to have the means to play the recording. Anyone on Earth who tries to play their VHS tapes or listen to a 45-rpm record might have some idea of the impact of advanced engineering.

Still, NASA maintains its vigil with its little explorer, which stands about 30,000 years away from being dominated by the gravitational pull of other suns.

Voyager continues incredible journey

A momentous occasion occurred for humankind without any tickertape parades, a big-money promotional tour or any celebrity controversy.

Voyager 1 has left the solar system.

That makes the little space probe, a scientific darling since its launch in 1977, the first object made on Earth to travel out of the solar system. It is 12 billion miles away and still is sending signals back to its handlers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the home of the human space stars who never leave the ground.

JPL is where the handlers for the Mars probes and other interplanetary probes work, providing humanity with amazing images and mountains of data to unlock the secrets of the galaxy.

There is not a border out there beyond the region of Pluto where Voyager crossed, so it took a year or more of debate before scientists were willing to make a public declaration about the bus-sized spaceship’s relative position to the solar system earlier this month. It is still running its systems to receive and beam back data on magnetic fields and particle data.

It’s not likely that Voyager will meet aliens, let alone aliens with a record player, but there is a gold disc aboard with greetings from 1977. That disc has been the stuff of science fiction stories with a “what if” flair about what other life forms might think of us based on those sounds. Perhaps the most memorable of those was “Star Trek The Motion Picture” back in 1979, featuring the fictional Voyager 6 being sent back home by benevolent intelligent life forms to reunite with its creator.

The real Voyager 1 will continue operating normally until about 2020, when its batteries finally will begin to lose strength, some 43 years after launch. That is an amazing feat of engineering.

Program monitors at JPL, some of whom surely will have spent their professional lifetime with the probe, then will begin shutting down systems toward an expected complete loss of signal sometime in 2025.

Voyager 1 is proof that science and engineering can achieve marvels. Think of the technology that didn’t exist back in the 1970s when the Voyager series was put together and consider how reliable and long-lived this probe has been.

It should cause us to consider that if humans can solve problems and create such a machine, imagine what we could do here on earth if politics, wars and international intrigue didn’t interfere.