Interstellar Traveler

The motive behind this article is to bring out a new perspective of travel. A story unlike other travel stories. This is the travel story not of a human being, but of a robot built by humans. This is the story of voyager spacecrafts on its interplanetary journey across the solar system and beyond. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are two twin robotic probes built in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California and were launched simultaneously in the year 1977. Since their launch both voyager 1 and 2 have explored all the outer planets of the solar system before leaving it recently and entering interstellar space. These spacecrafts are the farthest outposts of human civilization.


The identical Voyager spacecrafts are three-axis stabilized systems that use celestial or gyro referenced attitude control to maintain pointing of the high-gain antennas toward Earth. Their payload consists of 10 instruments. Gathered science data are returned to earth in real time at 160 bps. After transmission of the data it is processed and made available in electronic files to the science teams located around the world for their processing and analysis. Powered by a tiny plutonium reactor on-board which is down to about a half from when they were launched. The prediction is that the spacecraft could continue to have enough power to transmit until the early to mid-2020s if they go into the mode of shutting down some of the more power-hungry systems.

The mission objective of the Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM) is to extend the NASA exploration of the solar system beyond the neighborhood of the outer planets to the outer limits of the Sun’s sphere of influence, and possibly beyond. This extended mission is continuing to characterize the outer solar system environment. Both probes were the first to visit the solar system’s gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, and when Voyager 2 flew by the other outer planets Uranus and Neptune they changed our understanding of those worlds profoundly. Voyager sent home some stunning images of these gas giants. They were revolutionary. The Voyagers discovered many moons around the planets which were not known to us. The ones we knew were just points of light in telescopes. These points of lights were changed to geologic objects, to worlds that had weather and volcanoes and tectonics.

Jupiter and two moons
Portion of Jupiter and moons
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot
A close up of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot
Saturn and its glorious rings
Saturn rings
Saturn and its moons by Voyager 2
Uranus by Voyager 2
Voyager 2 image of Neptune

Just as Voyager 1 was about move away from Saturn and into interstellar space, NASA ordered the probe to turn back and take one last picture of the solar system. This picture would become one of the most famous pictures in the history of humanity. The picture of the ‘Pale blue dot‘. Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken on February 14, 1990 from a record distance of about 6 billion kilometers. There is perhaps no better explanation to this picture as described in this short video by Carl Sagan. Spend three minutes of your time in watching this moving video and words of wisdom by Carl Sagan. No one else could have described the picture so beautifully. The description and emotion in his voice is greatly inspiring.

On board of these space probes, NASA placed a rather more ambitious message. The Voyagers carry “golden records” packed with recordings of sounds, songs and pictures to communicate a sense of life on Earth to any extraterrestrials that might encounter them. Carl Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages. Each record is encased in a protective aluminum jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle. Instructions, in symbolic language, explain the origin of the spacecraft and indicate how the record is to be played. The 115 images are encoded in analog form. The remainder of the record is in audio, designed to be played at 16-2/3 revolutions per minute. NASA recently released their golden record version on soundcloud accessible for general public. As Carl Sagan has noted, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

A picture of Golden Record on Voyager

Voyager 1 is being hailed as the first probe to leave the solar system. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, traveling through interstellar space after leaving the solar system, is having a bumpy ride as it moves through a cosmic “tsunami wave” in space, scientists say.

First encountered earlier in this year, the wave is still moving outwards, new data suggests, and is the longest-lasting such wave yet detected in interstellar space, scientists say.

Occurring when the sun emits a coronal mass ejection of magnetic plasma from its surface, the resultant pressure wave, when it collides with interstellar plasma, creates shock waves in that interstellar medium.

It has encountered three such shock waves since leaving the solar system in 2012, and in fact researchers says it is those very shock waves that confirm the space probe has left the heliosphere, the bubble created by the solar wind that encompasses the sun and the planets and marks the outer boundary of our solar system.

The current wave was detected by Voyager 1 in February and is still going, according to November magnetic field data from the spacecraft received here on Earth.

Graphic rendering of Solar boundary

Solar system and beyond in the absence of sun or wind or anything that’s going to wear the Voyagers down they could easily outlast us—our entire civilization, outlast our planet. The Earth will eventually be swallowed by the sun and the Voyagers could still be out there. That’s what’s so exciting about having the golden records on them. Eventually when that day comes where the human species seize to exist, a reminiscent left by us would still be out there, out in the great enveloping cosmic darkness.

Disclaimer: Images sources can be found by clicking on them. Information:NASASA interview with Jim Bell


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