Thirty years after the launch of the twin Voyager spacecrafts, both probes continue to explore space and are expected to uncover new environments beyond our solar system before their onboard power runs out around 2020.
On Sept. 28, Dr. Alan Cummings, a senior scientist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, presented a lecture to an audience of about 100 at CSUN’s Bianchi Planetarium on the history and the future of the Voyager program.
“The Voyager mission is not over,” he said. “We are exploring the frontiers of the heliosphere right now.”
Since its launch, Voyager 1 has traveled 9.7 billion miles from Earth. But back in the 1970s, while the government was preoccupied with the Vietnam War, many of Cummings’ colleagues had doubts about whether the project would ever leave the drawing board.
In 1977, according to Cummings, planets aligned in a way that presented the most favorable conditions for Voyagers’ launch.
This event only occurs once every 176 years, but the administration had to be persuaded to take this chance before time ran out.
“I’ve been told, they actually went to President Nixon and said, ‘Last time this happened Jefferson missed his chance, you don’t want to do that, right?'” Cummings said. “Nixon said to go ahead.”
The president’s consent did not, however, guarantee the mission’s success.
Voyager 1 was designed to go to Saturn, Jupiter and to visit Saturn’s moon Titan, Cummings said. In case something went wrong Voyager 2 would’ve been used as a backup, but the mission went according to plan and the backup probe was then sent to Saturn, Uranus and then to Neptune.
During the mission, both spacecrafts discovered planetary features previously unseen from Earth.
“Voyager 1 discovered Jupiter had rings,” Cummings said. “That wasn’t known before.”
He added that Voyager 2 was the first spacecraft to ever visit Uranus and Neptune.
After completing their planetary bypasses, both Voyagers were deflected into outer space.
Currently, they are drifting to the fringes of the solar system because, Cummings said Voyagers don’t use propulsion systems to alter the course.
“They have been slingshot at launch and they got a speed boost from the planetary gravity as they passed by,” Cummings said. “In 40,000 years, Voyager 2 will eventually be near a different star from the sun.”
The absence of friction in space will allow both spacecraft to continue moving indefinitely unless they collide with another object.
Scientists, however, won’t be able to receive data back from the Voyagers forever.
Cummings said the radioactive material that powers the probes’ antennas will decay in about 13 years and will cease to provide the 0.3 watt necessary to send data to Earth. That is 95.5 percent less than what’s required to power a household incandescent light bulb.
Despite this, the Voyagers won’t lose their Earthly identity once they travel into the distant galaxy. A golden ‘license plate’ has been placed on both space craft.
“The golden record has the sights and sounds of the Earth and also has directions to find us, if aliens pick it up,” Cummings joked. “Though, they’ll have to submit to a background check.”
Cummings’ mustache has turned white since he started growing it in 1972 to commemorate the approval of the Voyager program as a mission. After 40 years at JPL, he’s still enthusiastic about his work.
“I could not imagine a more interesting mission to work on,” he said. “It’s like a new frontier.”
The CSUN planetarium serves as a classroom for astronomy classes and also offers various instructional shows to the public every two weeks on Friday nights. General admission is $5 and student tickets are $3.
Junior English major Alyce Benedetti said she appreciated Cummings’ good sense of humor and enthusiasm during the lecture.
Benedetti came to the lecture because her astronomy professor offered extra credit for attending the event, but she said she gained valuable knowledge in the process.
“I didn’t really know much about the Voyager,” Benedetti said. “It’s interesting how we have reached into the unknown and we are still pushing farther.”
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