“If you love your job, you never have to work a day in your life.”
What would happen if you signed on for a three year job, and ended up staying for 36, with no clear end in sight? While most people would surely balk at this turn of events — and probably find new employment — in the case of the Voyager 1 interstellar probe, the job keeps on going.
Because of it’s tenacity, the Voyager 1 not only completed an initial mission to photograph Jupiter and Saturn’s planetary systems by 1980, but for thirty-three years and nearly twelve billion miles from the sun, Voyager 1 has passed outwards towards the bounds of our solar system into interstellar space.
Interstellar space is the region between stars and their systems of planets, gases and more solid material. A solar system is bound by a heliopause, a region where the stream of charged particles released by a star creates a current in its local system, while stellar winds from surrounding stars buffet the interstellar medium.
The Voyager 1 passed through the heliopause into interstellar space late in August, based on the glow of radio waves mapped by a NASA array. Compared to today’s technology, the Voyager 1 is relatively crude: it transmits at just 22 watts, with orders of magnitude less memory than a modern smartphone or computer.
Despite the age of Voyager 1’s systems, it nonetheless confirms several valuable theories about the nature of interstellar space. By measuring oscillations in pitch of the plasma surrounding Voyager 1, Ed Stone, a Voyager project scientist at Caltech, and his team determined that Voyager 1 had passed through the heliopause into the void between stars. As Voyager 1 travels further away, it will take longer and longer to receive information from it, although the nuclear powered probe will likely continue to transmit for quite some time.
The final, and arguably most important feature of the Voyager program’s future is the Golden Record, a phonograph record of sounds and images that show a diverse collection of situations from Earth. A time capsule of Earth’s culture, the Golden Record is designed to convey a medley of information about humanity to any advanced extraterrestrial life that may find it, whether in 20, 200, or two million years in the future.
The travel of the Voyager 1 marks many triumphs for humankind, both for gathering information about our own solar system and proving that our ingenuity and creativity have allowed us to reach out into the universe and pave the way for greater learning and growth.