The twin Voyager spacecraft are going where no man has gone before — nor will he or she likely ever go there.
OK, we’re being a little presumptuous. We’re only guessing that Earthlings from our distant past didn’t have the capacity for interstellar space travel.
Discounting cave paintings, crop circles and other unexplained phenomena, just based on known evidence, there were no space travelers — at least from this planet — in our past.
Many of you may remember the promise of the two Voyagers, 1,500-pound packages loaded with scientific gear, launched in 1977 to examine our solar system and beyond.
Well, Voyager 1 is approaching the “beyond” segment of the journey, and is now officially the farthest a man-made object has traveled from Earth. The original plan was to map our solar system, send the data back to the Mother Ship, and when the time came, maybe Voyager could send us a little info about what lies beyond our Sun’s sphere of influence.
Voyager 1 is now 11 billion miles beyond the Sun, approaching that “final frontier” made famous in Capt. Kirk’s opening remarks on the remarkably prescient “Star Trek” TV series.
Voyager 1 is rocking along at 636 miles per minute — and still has taken since 1977 to reach the outer reaches of our solar system. That’s 35 years, going very rapidly, to complete its travels through our neighborhood, which occupies only a tiny fraction of the territory that’s out there.
When you really consider the scope of this thing we live in — our solar system, the galaxy, within the millions of galaxies, all within a universe — the sheer magnitude of it takes your breath away. This is the kind of stuff you think about, sitting on a beach at night under clear skies, or in the desert under a thousand million points of light.
Voyager’s approach to the ends of our known space, coupled with the recent discovery of a planet — Kepler-22b — that has all the ingredients necessary to support life, it’s a bit of an understatement to say this is an exciting time to be an astrophysicist.
Voyager’s cameras were turned off more than a decade ago, so it won’t be sending home any photos. But it is still transmitting some data, and in three years should be clear of the solar wind, which is the city limits for our neighborhood.
The two spacecraft also carry what scientists refer to as “golden cargo” — stuff from Earth designed to pique the interest of other intelligent life forms.
There are 116 photographs among the cargo. There are disks that include a sampling of Earth’s music. Someone out there may someday hear Louie Armstrong’s raspy voice and soulful trumpet.
There is also an invitation, open as it were, in an easily translated language from eastern China, that says this: “Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time.”
One might question the wisdom of asking an alien race in for dinner, when you can’t be sure of those folks’ eating habits. But, like driving on a two-lane highway, there is a certain amount of trust implied in such a situation.
Both Voyagers are designed to remain functional for another 10 to 15 years, which at 636 miles per minute, will carry them quite a ways. The fact that these machines have lasted this long, sending back so much valuable data, is an encouraging sign that we — the human race — are capable of going where no man has gone before.