Monday, December 20, 2010

The Little Satellite That Could

So this isn't really gaming related, but it's something near and dear to my nerdy little heart so it seems appropriate.

On Monday, Bad Astronomer posted about NASA scientists' confirmation that Voyager 1 has been in the heliopause for about 4 months now. We're all nerds here (and I'm sure most of you follow NASA and have heard the news already) but this seems like too momentous an occasion to just let pass.

For those a bit confused: The Heliosphere is the "bubble" of our sun's influence on the galaxy caused by the solar wind that flows out from the sun in all directions. The termination shock is the point (far beyond the edge of our solar system) where the solar winds first begin to slow down, Voyager past this point in 2004. Past the termination shock is the heliosheath, the region of space where the solar winds are slowing down and eventually come to a complete halt. The heliopause is when the winds reach zero and Voyager I's transient home for the next couple years.

Click to embiggen

I first saw the news sitting in line at a movie theater for a preview screening of Tron. There were a lot of nerds about but no one seemed to have the same, almost euphoric reaction as me. Voyager I is mere years from being the first man made object to escape the influence of the sun. Thinking about this now it giving me absolute chills. We really don't even know what's out there. The theory is that beyond the Heliopause is a region of hot hydrogen called the Hydrogen Wall, Voyager I's (and Voyager II in a couple more years) mission has been to study these different zones, and report back data, which it has been quite steadily. One of my favourite twitter feeds is Voyager2 which reports the distances of the two Voyager craft from earth as well as what Voyager2 is doing on a regular basis.

Right now Voyager I is 115.251 AU from earth, or as @Voyager2 tweets: "Voyager1 is 16 hrs 07 mins 28 secs of light-travel time from Earth"

Granted Voyager has been running for almost 33 years and has lost a lot of instrumentation in the process. The cameras were shut off about 20 years ago (and it's now too cold to ever turn them back on). Right now all that is running are the magnetometers, the gyros (to rotate the satellites 360 degrees 6 times a year to measure the magnetic field of the spacecraft in order to calibrate the magnetometer science data), and the Voyager Interstellar Mission science instruments that brought us the information on the solar winds. The gyros will be turned off in 2016 when the charging circuit is no longer able to support their load, and by 2020 the science instruments will no longer be powered.

But sometime in the next decade we're going to enter the Hydrogen Wall. We'll find out if the theories are correct and Voyager will continue on it's path away from us sending back telemetry to confirm or restructure our tiny spot in the universe.

Watching the Star Trek movie with my dad when I was little, the concept of V'ger evolving from the Voyager craft has always stuck with me. I would day dream about how an alien race would stubble across Voyager on it's endless flight and would look through the Golden Record and be so damn confused because who they hell plays records anymore. And then they'd probably mine it for minerals and there goes our great legacy. Yeah, I was an oddly cynical child. But now I'm simply in awe that a tiny bit of the human race is speeding on it's way to interstellar space and even when it finally shuts down that bit of humanity will continue on it's path for hundreds of years more. I hope one day, when FTL travel becomes a reality, someone takes the time to track down Voyager and gives it a new battery pack, defrost it's instruments and lets it continue it's mission.

So that's been my Tuesday, sitting in my office, drinking a SoCo and Rootbeer, and dreaming of the stars instead of running the analysis on my own satellite. How's your day been?

And if this post has give you a hankering for more about the Voyager Space Craft, Space Craft Escaping the Solar System is another one of my favourite Voyager watching sites. It also gives distances and speeds of the Pioneer missions, Voyager 2, and New Horizons.

1 comment:

  1. Heehee! Every time someone mentions Voyager I think of V'ger still trying his hardest to get back to Earth. It is a pretty amazing thing, that in our lifetime something has managed to breach the universe that we know. Maybe the Vulcans will take notice.