Man-made objects launched by the United States in 1977 are about to leave our solar system to begin an infinite journey through interstellar space.
Back when Voyagers One and Two were launched, mission planners at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory calculated that the probes would last five years. It would not be the first time scientists would drastically underestimate the staying power of an American space machine.
Very soon, the twin spacecraft (NASA opted for redundancy to ensure the success of the mission) will emerge from the sun’s magnetosphere, sometimes referred to as the “heliospheric bubble” that divides the solar and stellar winds, and become the first spacecraft to leave our solar system to explore the Milky Way. Each carries a gold-plated copper disk containing, among other data, greetings in 55 Earth languages.
It appears the only thing that can silence the Voyagers, whose signal strength in messages back to Earth is now measured in femtowatts, is the depletion of their plutonium power sources. That isn’t expected to happen until around 2020, meaning the craft will actually be traveling through the extreme foreground of deep space seen in all those spectacular Hubble Telescope images.
The Voyagers are hardly the only planetary probes that have far exceeded their expected lifetimes. The spunky Mars rover named Opportunity recently resumed operations after surviving its eighth Martian winter. Opportunity and its stalled mate Spirit landed on Mars in January 2004 and were expected to operate for perhaps a few months.
Both the Voyager and Mars rover programs illustrate the remarkable reliability of space electronics and the genius of the system engineers who in many cases used off-the-shelf systems, such as real-time operating systems, to design these magnificent machines. Their ingenuity stands as one of the foremost achievements of the electronics age.
We are NOT alone I was told. But we are the only ones who know that.
Deep space exploration is still exciting to follow as is deep water discoveries. Thre is so much we don't know about our environments and about ourselves. Onward, with the looking glass.
The universe is not wasted space if, as Psalm 19:1 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork." It's only wasted if we don't get the message. Here we are, trying to make contact, and the message has been streaming in.
This is very fascinating to me. But also points out how much we have to do to make space exploration even remotely feasible.
It took 35 YEARS merely to get a couple of spacecraft to the edge of our own solar system. Gad-zooks. We need major breakthroughs here, guys, or you can forget visiting even the closest star system (Alpha Centauri). Never mind the Delta Quadrant.
I love it! from Wikip.: The Delta Quadrant is home to the Borg Collective, the Kazon, the Vidiians, the Talaxians, the Ocampa, the Hirogen, the Malon, as well as many others. Species 8472, beings from "fluidic space", are first encountered in this quadrant, although they are not native to this region or physical dimension.
WE are NOT alone!
This is something that US should always will be proud of. With Chinese invading all of the consumer electronics products all over the world, US still keeps its strength and ingenuity when long lasting reliable electronics is required.
It's really that space vehicle electronics are extremely low-volume "product" and so haven't felt the need to be economically driven by Moore's law. The US had to put cold war politics above cost for this to go. Now there is no cold war, cost is the most powerful force. Ensuring reliability is actually too expensive for many consumers.
It is a mistake to confuse the design lifetime of something with an estimate of how long it will last. Something that is designed to last a few years usually lasts much longer. Especially if it designed to last those few years in a hazardous environment. This is because it has to be designed for the worst case, and that rarely happens. That NASA's craft have outlasted their design lifes only says that the Engineers did their jobs. This is not to say the fact that we have done this consistently is not something to be proud of. It is something to be very proud of. I am not taking exception to the acheivement, only to the idea that these craft should not be expected to outlive their missions.
Even educated people often have no perspective on how big space is. I once compared the orbit of Pluto to a pencil dot on the floor, and pointed out that on that scale Proxima Centari would be on the ceiling. Today, I will add the comment that on that scale, the helio-pause would be about the size of a BB. We can talk about the idea that Voyager is now an interstellar spacecraft, but it will be several hundred years before it is closer to another star than it is to our own.
I suspect that the longevity may have something to do with the extremely low temperatures the electronics is now running at. If lifetimes double for every 10C reduction then at close to absolute zero this could be very long indeed.