By Anthony Capkun
September 12, 2013 – I am so excited: NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has officially been declared the first human-made object to venture into interstellar space. The 36-year-old probe is about 12 billion miles (19 billion kilometers) from our sun.
“… [W]e believe this is mankind’s historic leap into interstellar space,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, adding, “… we can now answer the question we’ve all been asking: ‘Are we there yet?’ Yes, we are.”
Admittedly, it was not until I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture that I knew anything about Voyager, but I have been interested in its journey ever since. And while this is not necessarily ‘electrical’ news, you have to admit… it’s pretty cool.
Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, were launched 16 days apart in 1977. Mission controllers still talk to or receive data from Voyagers 1 and 2 every day, though the emitted signals are currently very dim, at about 23 watts. By the time the signals get to Earth, however, they are a fraction of a billion-billionth of a watt.
Data from Voyager 1’s instruments is transmitted to Earth typically at 160 bits per second, and captured by 34-m and 70-m NASA Deep Space Network stations. Travelling at the speed of light, a signal from Voyager 1 takes about 17 hours to travel to Earth.
Scientists do not know when Voyager 1 will reach the undisturbed part of interstellar space where there is no influence from our sun. They also are not certain when Voyager 2 is expected to cross into interstellar space, but they believe it is not very far behind.
The cost of the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 missions—including launch, mission operations and the spacecrafts’ nuclear batteries (provided by the Department of Energy)—is about $988 million through September.
“Perhaps some future deep space explorers will catch up with Voyager—our first interstellar envoy—and reflect on how this intrepid spacecraft helped enable their journey,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington.
I would love to be on that flight!