The universe is at the tip of our fingers with recent news that the space probe Voyager 1 has reached the outer boundary of our solar system. To the space buff out there, this is probably old news, but to the rest of us, that’s one small step for mankind, one gigantic friggin’ leap to the other side of the nowhere!
Now you may be thinking that this is all just more boring space news (and for me it was up until recently) but considering the scope of this huge enterprise and the history and significance of this milestone. It’s not actually a yawn-fest.
To infinity and beyond
Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are two space probes that were launched by NASA in 1977. They have been whizzing around space for the last 35 years, which, when you think about it, is a massive achievement in itself. Imagine all the things you have done in the last 35 years (for me, it includes being born). Imagine during that whole period that there have been two machines hurtling through space. Imagine also the thousands of people working hard to snap up information about outer space, revealing secrets about the universe.
The original mission of these two space probes was to take advantage of a rare astronomical phenomenon that happens only once every 175 years. The planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were all going to align such that a space object could study them in one, financially reasonable hit. NASA planned to send two space probes to explore these planets.
But before Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were even conceived, NASA didn’t think anything they could build, could last such a long journey. Therefore, NASA initially only commissioned the exploration of Jupiter and Saturn. To their surprise though, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were real space troopers.
They successfully passed Jupiter and Saturn and eventually made it on to Uranus and Neptune, making massive scientific discoveries along the way. They discovered volcanoes on Jupiter, the composition of Saturn’s rings, the climate of the planets, provided hints on how the solar system may have formed and many other significant astronomical delights (you can read a comprehensive list of their achievements here).
But as we know, that’s not the end of the story. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 completed their four planet tour in 1989, after 12 long years in space. And now, to the surprise of NASA and its many scientists, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are powering on and are now at the edges of our solar system.
Beyond the sun’s grasp
Voyager 1 is currently in an area known as the heliosheath, where the sun’s influence is greatly reduced. Our whole solar system is constantly being bombarded by solar winds, the sun’s answer to a mega super death ray. Solar winds are high energy particles that come from the sun and have a huge impact on the regular workings of our solar system.
But in the heliosheath, the solar winds die down and the influence of the sun is diminished. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are now going into unchartered territory, where our own sun is just another player in a universal Game of Thrones. These two space probes are venturing into interstellar space and are likely to reveal more and more secrets about our place in the Universe.
Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 aren’t just sending us information about the universe though, they’re also searching for alien life. On board the Voyager space probe is the Voyager Golden Record, a phonograph consisting of information about us and planet Earth.
The Voyager Golden Record contains music from different cultures, greetings in 55 languages, animal noises, sounds of our environment and images of Earth and its people. The record also contains instructions on how to find Earth which could be either very awesome or very doomsday.
Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 will continue sending information back to Earth up until about 2020. By that time, their plutonium-based electricity supply will run out and both space probes will live out their days in the coldness of space with no social interaction (unless of course they find aliens).
So yes, while news of space probes reaching random edges of the solar system might sound a bit boring at first, reflecting on its significance makes you realise the achievements we, as humans, have made. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have made massive contributions to the science world and a greater understanding of our place in the universe.
Round of applause Voyager, round of applause