NASA’s Voyager 2 Probe Is Nearing Interstellar Space –v 11 Billion Miles From Earth — Still Boldly Going Where No Probe Has Gone Before

NASA’s Voyager 2 Probe Is Nearing Interstellar Space –v 11 Billion Miles From Earth — Still Boldly Going Where No Probe Has Gone Before

     While we remain deeply divided politically, one thing we can all rejoice in — is a breathtaking achievement in space exploration — the little probe that could.  “It was forty years ago [now 41 years], August 20, and September 5, 1977, that a pair of robots named Voyager I and Voyager II, were dispatched to explore the outer solar system and the vast darkness beyond,” Dennis Overbye, who is a writer specializing in physics and cosmology, wrote in the August 22, 2017 edition of the New York Times. He calls “the saga of the Voyager I and Voyager II space probes, Humanity’s Calling Cards; “a real-life, Star Trek adventure, but the crew stayed home, communicating with their two spacecraft through a billion-mile bucket brigade of data bits. New computer programs went one way, and data — including scratchy photos of new landscapes, and the whispering moans of interplanetary plasma fields — came back the other way.  All of it was being carried out by a robot brain with the memory capacity of an old-fashioned digital watch.”

     Now, the two probes are on the verge of entering……..interstellar space [Voyager I is believed to already be there]. Mark Prigg, writing on the website of the, October 5, 2018, wrote that Voyager 2, is a little less than 11 billion miles (about 17.7B kilometers) from Earth, or more than 118 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun.” Mr. Prigg adds that “NASA has confirmed Voyager 2 has detected an increase in cosmic rays that originate outside our solar system, a sign it is closing in on the edge of our solar system.”

     “We’re seeing a change in the environment around Voyager 2, there’s no doubt about that,” said Voyager Project Scientist Ed Stone, based at Caltech in Pasadena. “We’re going to learn a lot in the coming months; but, we still don’t know when we’ll reach the heliopause.  “We’re not there yet – that’s one thing I can say with confidence.” According to Wikipedia, the heliopause is the technical boundary where the Sun’s solar wind is stopped by the interstellar medium.  

     “Since 2007 [the past 11 years], the probe has been traveling through the outermost layer of the heliosphere — the vast bubble around the Sun and planets dominated by solar material and magnetic fields,” Mr. Prigg wrote. “Voyager scientists have been watching for the spacecraft to reach the outer boundary of the heliosphere, know as the heliopause. Once Voyager 2 exits the heliosphere, it will become the second human-made object, after Voyager 1, to enter interstellar space.” 

     “Once Voyager 2 crosses into the interstellar medium, scientists will be able to sample the medium from two different locations at the same time,” Mr. Prigg wrote.  Mr. Ed Stone, Voyager Project scientist told the Daily Mail: “None of us knew, when we launched 40 years ago, that anything would still be working, and continuing on this pioneering journey. The most exciting thing they find in the next five years is likely something we didn’t know was out there [yet] to be discovered.” 

      “Unfortunately, NASA predicts that it will have to turn off the last scientific instrument by 2030,” Mr. Prigg wrote.”But, time is running out,” Richard Hollingham, wrote  in the August 18, 2017 edition of the“The spacecraft are powered by nuclear batteries, with electricity generated from heat produced by the decay of plutonium.  Every year, four watts less heat is produced.”  “The objective is to keep them flying as long as possible,” said Voyager Program Manager Suzy Dodd.  “You can imagine them being twins, and over the course of nearly forty years, one has lost hearing, and the other doesn’t see so well, so we have to be very careful.  We’ve been running off redundant systems.  We only operate the instruments that can take data where the spacecraft are — we don’t operate the cameras anymore because there’s nothing to see — it’s just very, very, dark space.”

     “In a way, however, the Voyager mission will last forever,” Mr. Hollingham wrote.  “Probably longer than human civilization.”  “I would like to think that sometime in the [distant] future, something, or somebody will find them, play the golden record, and look at what by that time, will be an ancient civilization,” Dodd said.  “Our Earth may be long gone by the time that golden record is found.”
     “The Voyagers will become our silent ambassadors in the Milky Way,” Stone said.  “They will be in orbit around the center of the galaxy for billions of years.”  “But, he’s not as optimistic as Dodd that the Voyagers will ever be discovered,” Mr. Hollingham wrote.  “It would be remarkable [if it ever happens] — space is really empty.”  

       “In the fullness of galactic time,” Mr. Overbye concluded his article: “The Voyagers may be found; but by then,” he says, “the human race may be long extinct.  The Voyager record may be the only physical remains of the last lonely evidence, that we too, once lived in this city of stars, among these islands of ice and rock.”
     “But, even after the spacecraft go silent, they will continue their journey, completing an orbit within the Milky Way every 225 million years.

     Very fascinating.  As the late Sci-Fi author/legend Arthur C. Clark once said, “We are either all alone in the universe…..or, we aren’t.  And either of those two outcomes is frightening.”
      If you would like to read more on the Voyager mission/s, I refer you to Jim Bell’s comprehensive and engrossing, “The Interstellar Age: Inside The Forty-Year Voyager Mission, published in 2015 by Dutton.

     Howard Schneider wrote/asked in a February 20, 2015 article/book review (Wall Street Journal) of Mr. Bell’s book that — “Why is unmanned space exploration important?”  “The implicit answer in The Interstellar Age,”is that it makes us smarter, which is a splendid achievement.  In the prelude to this book, Mr. Bell writes:  “Via technology, their [the Voyagers’] discoveries and the messages that they are delivering to the galaxy on our behalf, [means] we have all entered the Interstellar Age.  This may be the ultimate legacy of the men and women, and machines of Voyager.”  Makes one proud to be an Earthling,” Mr. Schneider concludes. Amen. 

      Mankind has an insatiable curiosity, that can only be satiated by breaking through barriers, and ‘going, where no ‘man’ has gone before.’  What lies beyond our solar system?, How many other universes are out there?, Are we all alone?, Why are we the anomaly?  What is our ultimate purpose?  Where will we be in a 1,000 years?  1 million years?  1 billion years?  The Voyagers don’t even constitute a baby step down that road; but, it is a beginning, and hats off to Dr. Stone and all those who made the Voyager mission/s possible.

     And if you want to be a little bit cynical, I guess you could say that the two Voyagers will be our first two pieces of…………..interstellar trash. 

 V/R, RCP,

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