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Voyager 1 as it exits the solar system (NASA)

I believe it was Arthur C Clarke who first used the phrase “something wonderful is going to happen.” Well, it was either him or someone else. Anyway, something wonderful IS going to happen.

Now, before you rush off to find that lottery ticket from last weekend that you still haven’t checked (why do people do that), this particular wonder is concerned with humanity, history, expolration … and some squiggly lines on a graph. But since we’re all buzzed about your lottery ticket, go check, we’ll wait.

No luck? Rats. I guess the party’s off.

As a consolation, lets get back to that wondrous thing.

Firstly, the humanity bit is just us. All things considered, we’re a nosey bunch. Whenever someone discovers anything, someone else has to say “yes, but why?” and the whole process starts again. Like it or loath it, it’s the way we are, so just put up with it.

Secondly, history. In this case, the history of two plucky NASA space probes. (Note: plucky is a British term, meaning “no-one expected it to work, but it did, so now we’re going to act all smug about it”). This particular pair of plucksters were called Voyager I and II. These probes were intended to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Nepture. History hasn’t been kind to this pair. Things got off to a confusing start when Voyager II was launched before Voyager I. Lovers of all things ordinal were further enraged when Voyager I arrived at Jupiter before Voyager II. The final straw was when the pair arrived at Saturn. Ground controllers changed Voyager I’s course to examine the moon Titan, a maneuver which pointed the probe out of the plane of the ecliptic. Even if you’re not sure what what the term ecliptic means, if you ever find yourself piloting a deep space craft that’s low on fuel, water, oxygen, or moist towelettes – DON’T LEAVE THE PLANE OF THE ECLIPTIC. Certainly not if you’re hoping to visit (say) Starbucks at some point in your future.

After the gas giants, the Voyager probes had one last trick up their exploring sleeve, they were going to leave the solar system. Actually, they were going to leave whether we wanted them to or not, it’s pretty hard to stop when you’re doing 10 miles every second.

This last part really went to people’s heads. If these things weren’t going to stop, who knows where they might go? Ex-hippies everywhere wondered into who’s hands these wonders would fall. In a grand gesture they decided the probes should carry a gold audio-visual disk with pictures of the Earth, humans, animals, whale sounds, babies crying, and Chuck Berry belting out Johnny B Goode. Quite why crying babies are a good introduction to the human race, I don’t know. At least alien-kind can be grateful the Mammas and Poppas got voted out.

In aeons to come, when this “treasure” lands on some distant planet, it’ll set back the evolutionary development of that life form by centuries. The biggest laugh is the fact it’s an “audio-visual disk.” I mean, you can’t even play your old VHS tapes anymore, let alone buy an “audio-visual” disk player. How the ding-dong some bunch of aliens are going to get one of these things, I don’t know. Maybe they’ll just all hold hands and sing “kumbaya” until one drops from the heavens.

So, if they aliens aren’t going to do so well out of Voyager, what’s this wonderful thing that’s going to happen?

I’m glad you asked, because Voyager I going to leave the solar system. In fact, it might have already left. There’s no big signpost with “Now Leaving The Solar System” written on it to be sure, but there are clues. The three things that indicate something has left the solar system are generally held to be:

1) Rapid increase in cosmic rays not originating from the sun.

2) A drop in charged particles originating from the sun.

3) A change in the direction of the magnetic field.

The fourth indication, the final cessation of robocalls from dodgey timeshare operators, is still not completely agreed upon, largely because of the belief that these calls are a universal constant.

Over the last few months, NASA has reported an increase in galactic cosmic rays hitting Voyager (ie stuff that didn’t come from the sun).

There has also been a dramatic drop in charged particles from the sun.

The magnetic field question has yet to be answered, but either way, Voyager has been through an incredible change in conditions over the last few months, it’s clearly interacting with something.

So, thirty five years after its launch, in the most inhospitable environment, Voyager is still sending data, responding to commands, and uncovering the universe as it’s originators intended. It’s an awesome scientific and technological achievement, and one that NASA can be throughly proud of.

And for us humans? Well, you can debate the data, but Elvis can finally move over, Chuck Berry has left the solar system!



(Images courtesy of NASA)

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