Voyager 1, the little plutonium-powered spacecraft launched thirty-six years ago by NASA and equipped with primitive technology by today’s standards, has left the solar system. It is now traveling in the vast empyrean space between dazzling stars, still radioing back data that can help scientists increase our knowledge of the universe.
A debate has ensued as to whether Voyager 1 has actually gone beyond the heliosphere or is still traveling in its backyard. Details are important in any scientific endeavor but in this case, this particular detail is insignificant (although given the sudden vanishing of sun’s charged particles and the spike in galactic cosmic rays that Voyager 1 started recording a year ago, it appears that the starship has indeed broken through the solar bubble.)
What is significant is the immensity of Voyager 1’s accomplishment, both literally and figuratively.
Consider first the facts. The lonely probe that took off from the earth in 1977, the same year that saw the release of the movie “Star Wars,” is now 11.7 billion miles away from the earth (that’s 122 times the distance between sun and earth, or 122 Astronomical Units) and hurtling away at 38,000 miles per hour. It takes 17 hours and 22 minutes for Voyager’s signals, traveling at the speed of light at 186,000 miles per second, to reach NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (Its twin, Voyager 2, is now 9.5 billion miles away from the earth and is expected to take 3 more years before slipping the bounds of the solar system.)
But if these facts are impressive, consider that at its current velocity, it will take Voyager 1 another 40,000 years to reach the Alpha Centauri, the closest star to our sun. Long before that, of course, the spacecraft will run out of its nuclear fuel and power down its instruments in about a dozen years from now.
Beyond the data loom the larger questions: What does this mean? In what ways can the Voyagers alter our perspective about, or at least compel us to reconsider, our place in the universe? Is there an associated element of transcendence as this 1,592-pound starship continues its journey across infinity?
On the day NASA announced Voyager 1’s leaving the solar system, another piece of news set California’s Silicon Valley all atwitter: the impending initial public offering (IPO) of Twitter, the “140-character” micro-blogging social media company. It grabbed headlines in all the major online and print publications in the U.S. The financial world, in particular, was abuzz with Twitter’s estimated value, set to about $10 billion.
Voyager 1, in contrast, made no comparable splash. In the days that followed, Twitter’s every step toward IPO was tracked and turned into breathless headlines while Voyager 1 practically vanished from the media.
Our priorities are askew. Companies may soar and fall and forgotten but the first man-made object to enter interstellar space is, by any definition, a historic milestone that time cannot erase. “The Little Nuclear-Powered Engine That Could” is now voyaging across an unimaginable immensity, affirming our transient place on earth under the heavens. We are here for a reason and even if we cannot bathe in the cosmic afterglow of the Big Bang or witness celestial fireworks in regions where time and space are probably more intricately knitted together, what we build with our ingenuity and launch toward the stars, can.
Voyager 1 reminds us that science is not a catalog of facts but an unending quest for the unknown. Every time we unveil one of nature’s mysteries, we find more mysteries nested within, infinity within infinity. Physicist Richard Feynman defined science as an “expanding frontier of ignorance.” There’s lot more we don’t know than we do. Science is more about the former than the latter. We forget this sometimes, absorbed in our mastery of the known and the commercial success of our products, and lose sight of the profound truth that we are surrounded by mysteries, only a few of which we have been able to solve.
Will the Voyagers, or their descendants, register ripples radiating from dark energy, thought to be the source of an expanding universe? Will the next generation of Voyagers navigate the sea of distant quasars and supernovas and galaxies, enriching future generations with wondrous truths about the universe we cannot even begin to imagine today? Will human beings one day travel between stars and galaxies? No one knows. What we do know is that our quest to know the unknown will continue for as long as the fire of curiosity burns within us, the one quality alone that makes us human above all else.