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 buffs out there, this is probably week-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.
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, if 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. Pretty impressive.
The original mission of these two space probes was to take advantage of a rare astronomical phenomenon that happens 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. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched to observe and study those planets.
It took 12 years but in 1989, it was mission accomplished. Both voyagers experienced successful journeys 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.
Voyager keeps on trucking
But that’s not the full story. Before Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were even conceived, NASA didn’t even think any of their space probes could last such a long journey, nor did they have the financial resources to improve instrument longevity.
Therefore, NASA initially only commissioned exploration of Jupiter and Saturn. To their surprise though, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 kept on trucking and not only were they able to observe Uranus and Neptune, but now they’ve made it to the edge of the solar system! Pretty good human engineering right there.
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 is now going into uncharted 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.
Search for alien life
Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 aren’t just sending us information about the universe though, they’re also sending out information about ourselves, should aliens find it. On board the Voyager space probe is the Voyager Golden Record, a phonograph consisting of information about humans 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. The record also contains nude drawings of a man and woman (bow-chicka-wahwah) and instructions on how to find Earth. This record could either be very awesome or very doomsday should aliens find it. But given that Voyager 1 is likely to reach the nearest star outside our solar system in about 40,000 years, we’ll let future us worry about that.
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 Voyagers, round of applause.
P.S. I definitely encourage you to hit up this link with a bit more info about the Voyager, including some interesting financial stats like how many candy canes it cost to build it. The NASA site also gives you more detailed info about Voyager and its history. Well worth the read!