The Loneliest Messenger

18,800,000,000 km and counting, that’s how far away our friend is. No, I am not talking about an imaginary person or a mythological figure. What I am talking about is fully real and functional. It’s the Voyager-1 space probe. Okay, so you might be wondering why it is so far away from us. Well, gone are the days when the sky was the limit. Humans have learnt to keep that flame of seeking knowledge alive through curious minds under the guidance of science. Hence was born Voyager-1.

It is a space probe launched by NASA on September 5, 1977. Part of the Voyager program to study the outer Solar System, Voyager 1 was launched 16 days after its twin, Voyager 2. Having operated for 39 years, 4 months and 7 days, the spacecraft still communicates with the Deep Space Network to receive routine commands and return data. At a distance of 137 AU (2.05×1010 km) from the Sun as of December 2016, it is the farthest spacecraft from Earth as well as the farthest man-made object. To give you an estimation of that figure, the spacecraft is now 124 times farther from the Sun than we are, and in the time it takes you to read this paragraph, it will venture more than 161 km outwards.

Voyager 1 is one of two probes to explore the outer planets in our solar system. Along with its twin, Voyager 2, it had made some surprising discoveries and have kept on going. Voyager 1 is also the first manmade object to travel into ‘interstellar space. Although it was actually the second of the twin spacecraft to launch,  it was the first to race by Jupiter and Saturn. NASA originally planned to send two spacecraft past Jupiter, Saturn and Pluto and two other probes past Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune. Due to budgetary reasons, it had to scale back its plans, but still got a lot out of the two Voyagers it launched. Voyager 2 flew past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, while Voyager 1 focused on Jupiter and Saturn. The spacecraft have been traveling along different flight paths and at different speeds. The Voyager missions were intended to take advantage of a special alignment of the outer planets that happens every 176 years. It would allow a spacecraft to slingshot from one planet to the next, assisted by the first planet’s gravity.

Voyager 1 almost didn’t get off the ground at its launch, as its rocket came within 3.5 seconds of running out of fuel. But it made it safely, and raced past its twin, after launch, leaving the ‘asteroid belt before Voyager 2 did, swooshing away at speeds of 61,000 kmph and keeping us all amazed back home with tons of deep space images.

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NASA’s Voyager 1 captured both the Earth and its Moon in a single frame. For the first time, we perfectly captured the two celestial bodies we call ‘home’. Voyager 1 was the first spacecraft to capture everything humanity had explored in one shot.

Realizing that the Voyagers would fly out of the solar system, NASA authorized the production of two records to be placed on board the spacecraft. Sounds ranging from whale calls to the music of Chuck Berry were placed on board, as well as spoken greetings in 55 languages.

The 12-inch, gold-plated copper disks also included pictorials showing how to operate it, and the position of the Sun among nearby pulsars in case extraterrestrials were wondering where the spacecraft came from.

Aboard each spacecraft is a golden record, a collection of sights, sounds and greetings from Earth. There are 117 images, with a variety of natural and human-made sounds like storms, volcanoes, rocket launches, airplanes and animals.

Upon suggestions from Carl Sagan, a space pioneer, engineers turned the Voyager-1 around for one last look at its home planet as it left our solar system on February 14, 1990. Looking at the picture, he quoted these lines, which forever got etched in the annals of history along with the image.

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“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish this ‘pale blue dot’, the only home we’ve ever known.”

                                                  ~As I finish writing this, the Voyager-1 is making headlines again. This time, it has got a ‘date with a star, called ‘C +79 3888’, some 17.6 light years away from earth. It’s on its way to a close approach with it in about 40,000 years and will swing by it, and continue to wander the Milky Way galaxy, perhaps eternally~

Such a show off!

Image credits : voyager.jpl.nasa.govWikipediaGizmodo

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