V'Ger! The launch of Voyager 1
NASA's Voyager 1 probe is approaching the edge of interstellar space. In particular, NASA believes the spacecraft, launched in the Age of Disco on September 5, 1977, is almost past the immense sphere of our sun's solar wind. The sun constantly emits an outward-rushing stream of electrically charged particles, which scientists have dubbed "the solar wind."
Certain readings now being transmitted from Voyager 1 indicate the craft is nearing the point where the solar wind stops. See the press release from NASA for the nitty-gritty details. NASA is trying to refine its calculations of when the probe will actually depart from the solar wind's boundary. As of today, scientists expect that to happen in about four years. When it does, the radio telemetry from Voyager will provide confirmation. Assuming, of course, that the radio equipment is still working by then.
If it is, then Earth-based listeners will receive the first human radio signals ever transmitted from truly interstellar space, beyond the sun's farthest reach. In its own way, it will be an achievement equally as impressive as the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.
It will be another entry in the annals of spiritually significant human achievements from the era of fossil fuels. The industrial development made possible by those fuels enabled us to see our planet from outside, and send explorers, both human and machine, to other bodies across the ocean of space.
Those same fuels will, inevitably, bring an end to the current industrial age, together with all the economic and social institutions that it made possible. Whatever rises in the future to replace this way of life will have to find better ways of living within ecological limits, on drastically reduced supplies of energy. But those future societies will be able to do so with pictures and memories from the edge of forever. For whatever that may be worth. A lot, I would say. The experience of eternity is one of the things that redeems mortal human existence.
One of my regular readers expects that our distant descendants of the new ecological age will have a sufficient resource base and technological infrastructure to resume human exploration of the stars. I hope he is right, for many reasons. Not the least of which is the necessity of finding a new home for the human race before some cosmic catastrophe wipes out the Earth.
But also, I invoke a principle once cited by a friend of mine, when he was arguing in favor of spending money to send human beings to Mars. Asked for a good reason to do it, my friend mentioned other, minor reasons, before getting to the most crucial principle. He spoke of technological spin offs, the need for interplanetary colonization to ensure human survival, the superiority of human explorers over machines in searching for extraterrestrial life, the availability of affordable technology for the trip, and so on.
But his main reason? Because it's cool, he said. Adding, helpfully: so fuck off.
May the enterprise continue.
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Postscript: Pioneer 10 is further out into space than Voyager 1, I think, but I don't think it transmitted any signals from beyond the solar wind. Need to check that.
And a star to steer her by: Voyager 1 in flight