Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Voyager 1 Enters Interstellar Space

By Father Gordon J. MacRae at These Stone Walls

....This milestone for Voyager is a very big deal for science and for planet Earth, but there’s also something humbling about it. TSW readers of a certain age will remember the great 1968 film masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey” for which producer/director Stanley Kubrick won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 1969. Based on a novella by science fiction legend, Arthur C. Clarke entitled, The Sentinel, “2001: A Space Odyssey” was Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 vision of what human space travel would look like by 2001.

It included commercial airline shuttle flights to a giant space station in orbit around Earth, excavations on the dark side of the Moon, and a science crew sent in cryogenic stasis to the moons of Jupiter shepherded by two pilots played by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood. They were guided on the mission by HAL-9000, a computer (Mac or PC? You decide!) suffering a nervous breakdown. “Open the pod bay doors, Hal,” ordered stranded astronaut, David Bowman (Keir Dullea). “I’m sorry, Dave, but I can’t do that,” HAL-9000 calmly replied.

When the real 2001 came and went, the reality of space travel was not even close to what Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick envisioned. NASA’s manned Apollo lunar landings had been abandoned decades earlier, and the only orbiting space station, a tin can next to Kubrick’s vision, was Russia.

Voyager’s real space odyssey of 2012 might be a lot less glamorous than manned flights to the moons of Jupiter, but it’s still a great moment in human history. For the very first time, an object created by human beings has left our Solar System to begin a journey into space beyond the influence of our star, the Sun. Voyager has passed at last into what Star Trek called “The Final Frontier.” For science fiction buffs, that might seem one small step for man, but for science itself, it’s one giant leap for mankind.
WHY 1977?

Once every 176 years, the five outer planets of our Solar System – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and the now downgraded Pluto – are aligned in such a pattern that a spacecraft launched from Earth to Jupiter at just the right time would be able to visit the other planets using a slingshot trick of physics called “gravity assist.”

The Voyager 1 and 2 planetary probes were launched in the summer of 1977 to take advantage of this rare alignment. The next opportunity would have been the year 2153. Voyager 2 was actually launched first on August 20, 1977 followed by Voyager 1 on September 5. They were named in reverse order because it was calculated that Voyager 1 would overtake Voyager 2 after reaching Jupiter in March of 1979.

The slingshot effect of “gravity assist” shot Voyager 1 away from Jupiter for a flyby of Saturn in 1980, Uranus in 1985, and then Pluto in 1989, while Voyager 2 took a slingshot from Uranus to Neptune. After visiting Pluto in August of 1989, it took Voyager 1 another 23 years to reach and break through the outer limits of the Solar System, something that happened last month... (continued)

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