NASA's Voyagers on a 'magic mission' into Milky Way
Two frail and aging spacecraft are bound where no man has gone before -- into the heliosphere.
Wed, Dec 30, 2009 at 10:27 PM
Photo courtesy NASA/Feimer
NASA launched twin Voyager space probes in 1977, the same year Star Wars debuted. Since then, the fragile spacecraft have raced some 8.3 billion miles — twice as far from Earth as Pluto, the solar system's outermost planet — and are headed to where the mysteries of space abound.
Both craft are now reaching an area called the heliosphere, where the sun's solar wind meets the interstellar dust that marks the boundary of deep space. If the solar system were a lagoon, this area would be where the clear, warm and shallow waters end, and the dark, cold and deep waters begin.
Poking along at a mere 34,000 mph, the vessels haven't quite made it out to Princess Leia and the Death Star. But, so far, they've survived their own dramatic 33-year trek to produce results that continue to wow astronomers:
"This is a magic mission … After all these years, Voyager 2 is still working and sending us firsthand data." Merav Opher, associate professor at George Mason University told USA Today about one of the spacecraft vehicles.
And what a long, strange trip it's been.
The craft recently discovered that the magnetic field of our Milky Way galaxy is not only far more powerful than scientists' predictions, but it's tilted out of whack in a way no one predicted, according to Opher.
"We didn't expect such a strong field and this tilted, although there were already some indications from our previous studies that the interstellar field has a strong effect on shaping the solar system," Opher told the journal Nature.
"Voyager 2 continues its journey of discovery ... and joined Voyager 1 in the last leg of the race to interstellar space," said Voyager project scientist Dr. Edward Stone of Pasadena's California Institute of Technology.
Back on Earth, Opher, Stone and NASA officials are hoping they won't need Jedi mind tricks to convince President Barack Obama to sign off on another $3 billion a year over the almost nearly $19 billion NASA already gets, in the FY 2011 budget.
The space agency wants the funding to strike out on farther, more complex and ambitious missions in the next decade-and-a-half, and go where no man has gone before. Places like Mars, and landing on one of its moons, and on asteroids.
But in the meantime, astrophysicists like Opher are buoyed by Voyager 2's longevity and the recent finds. They hope both spindly, aging craft will keep relaying back data about new wonders until their transmitters stop phoning home, sometime around 2025:
"The environment of the interstellar magnetic field is not very well understood," she says, but adds, "The fact that we are able to predict the 'weather' or the conditions outside our solar system (while) being inside it still, it's like predicting the weather outside the house being in the bathroom or kitchen!"
The probes are, "opening a new age of exploration," according to astrophysicist Jack Jokipii of the Department of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona.
May the force be with Voyagers 1 and 2.