New Castle News

September 5, 2012

Our Opinion: Historic space probe nears the edge of solar system

By Staff
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — How outdated is NASA’s Voyager I spacecraft?

Well, for one thing, it uses eight-track tape recording technology. And its computer is far more primitive than even the most basic household devices.

But 35 years later, Voyager is still going strong, defying the odds and dangers of deep space. And in the near future, this tiny probe will officially leave the solar system, continuing its journey into the unknown.

Despite their now-primitive technology, both Voyager 1 and 2 still send signals back to Earth. If these probes were launched today, they undoubtedly would have a greater capacity for transmitting information back home. But in 1977, it was the best NASA could do.

Officially, the Voyager probes’ main mission was to conduct fly-bys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, giving Earth greater insight into these distant gas giants. Much was revealed by the Voyager probes, which were directed into deep space once they completed their primary tasks.

On the probes is information about Earth and humanity. NASA scientists had the foresight to consider that Voyager 1 and 2 would survive their missions and perhaps one day encounter other intelligent life forms in the cosmos.

That’s a tall order, considering the vastness of space. When you realize it has taken Voyager 35 years just to reach the edge of our solar system, finding its way to other beings — assuming they exist — is obviously an unlikely occurrence.

But who knows? The Voyagers have provided their share of surprises already. More may be in store.

However, it’s not likely the Voyager probes will send back information about any encounter with an alien civilization. Their nuclear fuel is expected to last only until around 2020.

Perhaps the most enduring lesson from Voyager is its reminder of how vast space is and how challenging it will be for humanity to reach meaningfully beyond Earth’s close environs. Despite all the talk about lunar bases and manned missions to Mars, these costly ventures are merely concepts, not specific, budgeted plans.

And going to these nearby bodies is nothing compared to traveling the distances achieved by the Voyager probes.

There is a romance to human space travel. But this clashes with the financial and technological realities of such missions. While traveling to the moon can be accomplished within days, a space journey to Mars and back would require months.

This is why NASA is focusing more on unmanned probes to do the heavy lifting, such as the current Mars rover Curiosity. Machines may not be the perfect replacement for human minds, eyes and adaptability. But they increasingly can perform crucial and delicate missions, such as seeking signs of past or present life on Mars.

We have no doubt that humans will return to the moon and beyond some day. But in the meantime, the Voyager and Curiosity missions demonstrate that much can be accomplished without them.