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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 05-3-24 – A Voyager Through Time and Space

On September 5, 1977, Voyager 1 (V1) a space probe that was part of the NASA program to study the outer Solar System and the interstellar space beyond the Sun's heliosphere started its journey. It was launched and lifted beyond earth’s gravitational field. This was 16 days after its twin Voyager 2 (V2) was mission go and also sent beyond the pull of mother earth. At the moment I wrote this, Voyager is now 15,125,139,212 miles from our little world. The picture of all of us above was taken by sister probe Cassini at 900 miles away.


You can check how far it is from earth by checking the real time NASA Mission Status Board. The status board also reports real time data from its twin, V2. While V2 lifted off launched over two weeks ahead of V1 and initially was traveling at a higher speed than V2, it is 3 billion miles behind V1. This is because V1 traveling at 38,210 mph gained more speed through its gravity assist maneuver around Jupiter than V2. V2 is dawdling along at 34,391 mph.  This was intentional, while the craft are identical, scientists had very different mission plans for them. Both where beyond successful. We have learned so much about the solar system from both V1 and V2.


I had read a few months ago that V1 was not responding to commands and sending a loop of gibberish code. Many though it was the end of the mission. V1 would continue silently in the direction of the Oort Cloud but we would not be able to communicate with it. It is inevitable that there will be a day in which the systems that keep it operational cease to function. It achieved all of goals and then some. Over the ensuing the months, scientist tried to figure out what was wrong. Yet, the good news of the day is that we are not at the end of this mission of grand human exploration yet.


The craft is so far away it takes over 22 hours for a signal to reach it another 22 hours to see if it responds. As noted in this Wired article, How NASA Repaired Voyager 1 From 15 Billion Miles Away, there was a breakthrough last month when engineers sent up a novel command to “poke” Voyager 1's Flash Disk Storage memory (FDS) to send back a readout of its memory. This readout allowed engineers to pinpoint the location of the problem in the FDS. They then fixed it. The craft is now back in operation, some think it may stay operational for as long as another 12 years. A potential 59-year mission life. Fingers crossed.


I was 12 when it was launched in 1977. The state-of-the-art computers for home use in that era was the Apple II and the Tandy TRS-80. That a computer sent into space in that era could even be reprogrammed in the way that they did is absolutely remarkable. The whole thing is. These space craft advanced our knowledge of the solar system and beyond immeasurably. Our outlook in that era was we wanted to advance science and do hard things. We did so because we wanted the challenge and we wanted to learn about what was beyond our understanding. We had a “can do” outlook.    


I was a kid in this era. At that time, there was a lot of excitement about space exploration. We had scientists like Carl Sagen who could talk about what astronomers were trying to learn and why it was important. He made science cool and understandable, much in the way that Neil deGrasse Tyson does now. Neil was one of those kids who Carl inspired. There is a story of Neil getting a letter from Carl as a 17 when Neil was applying to Cornell. Carl the famous scientist invited the teen to Cornell and spent a whole day with Neil. Neil does the same with prospective students. As a side bar, it is that kind of passion that has led to having really talented and innovative people who can solve complex challenges in space exploration.


When I consider that one of the things we did relatively early in the space program and our ability to reach beyond the gravity of earth was to send out probes to find answers to questions we have long contemplated I get inspired. What is out there?  None of us will be alive when V1 finally reaches the Oort Cloud and it will long have ceased to function, but a thing we thought of, designed, built, launched and troubleshooted will get to it. That is nerd cool, and as a nerd, I see it as so.


NASA still has big dreams, including a return to the moon with the Artemis Missions to establish a presence on the moon and prepare for putting Humans on Mars. How can one consider all that and not feel genuine awe. I am grateful for our innate sense of exploration and the scientists and engineers who took V1 from a dream and turned it into a reality and continue to work towards their dreams and the advancement of human knowledge.


What are you grateful for today?

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