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New JPL film tells story behind Voyager spacecraft

Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Voyager 1
Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Voyager 1
Jet Propulsion Laboratory

On Wednesday night, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena will be screening its newest documentary film, "The Stuff of Dreams," the story of the early days of NASA's Voyager mission. Although the two Voyager spacecraft have been successful since their launches into space 37 years ago – last year, NASA and JPL confirmed Voyager 1 had entered interstellar space nearly a year earlier – mission managers and JPL faced a number of challenges along the way that almost prevented the missions from happening. The new JPL-produced film details these challenges in developing, launching and operating the twin Voyager spacecraft through first-hand accounts. It shows how the mission and JPL survived times of uncertainty and debate about the future of the US space program and embarked on one of the most ambitious planetary tours designed.

Located at the California Institute of Technology, JPL’s history dates back to the 1930s and Caltech’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory. The first rocket firing took place in October 1936, and in the year’s following, the lab’s work was especially crucial during World War II. It wasn’t until after Congress created NASA in 1958 that JPL was transferred from Army jurisdiction to that of a new civilian space agency.

Although JPL launched a number of spacecraft into space, its Voyager project holds the title for a single mission with the most planets visited. Since their launch in 1977, they’ve visited Jupiter and Saturn; Voyager 2 visited Uranus and flew by Neptune; and Voyager 1 secured the record for most distant human-made object in space, first when it passed NASA’s Pioneer 10 in 1998, and then when it entered interstellar space in 2012.

In September of last year, JPL confirmed that Voyager 1 had actually entered interstellar space on August 25, 2012. So the spacecraft had been traveling through the plasma, or ionized gas, present in the space between the stars for an entire year before confirmation. It was a massive burst of solar wind and magnetic fields that vibrated the plasma around the spacecraft that finally clued scientists into its location.

“Now that we have new, key data, we believe this is mankind’s historic leap into interstellar space,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at Caltech. “The Voyager team needed time to analyze those observations and make sense of them. But we can now answer the question we’ve all been asking: ‘Are we there yet?’ Yes, we are.” At the time of the announcement in September, Voyager 1 was about 12 billion miles from the sun.

And just this week, JPL released the first global, geological map of the largest moon in the solar system, Jupiter’s seventh moon Ganymede, taken by Voyager 1 and 2. The map combines the best images obtained during flybys of the spacecraft since 1979 and illustrates the varied geological surface features. According to JPL, Ganymede is an icy, outer-planet moon that went through three major geological periods. “This map is helping planetary scientists to decipher the evolution of this icy world,” said Robert Pappalardo of JPL, “and will aid in upcoming spacecraft observations.”

As mentioned, it’s the Voyager project’s success stories that people know. So “The Stuff of Dreams” aims to share the stories of the turbulent times behind the scenes that made those success stories happen. The film, which is free to the public, is showing at Beckman Auditorium on the Caltech campus on Wednesday, February 19; it starts at 7:30 pm.

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