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To Boldly Voyage

December 14, 2010

To anyone who has been following the Voyager spacecraft progress the last few years (or even months); the confirmation that Voyager 1 is now in the area of space known as the Heliosheath will come as no surprise (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11988466). For me at least, the formal announcement has been anticipated for the past year. Now that’s its official, its very, very cool!

When it comes to science, nothing gets me more excited than discoveries and achievements outside of our humble little planet. The knowledge that the two Voyager craft are not only still working, after over 30 years travelling across our solar system, but are now in the outer layer of our solar system. Well Voyager 1 is anyway, Voyager 2 still needs to make the crossing over the Termination Shock, but its not far behind and I look forward to the confirmation that it too has made that giant leap.

Normally I wouldn’t bother to make a comment on such a scientific (and human) achievement. There are plenty of websites and blogs being written by people far more scientifically literate than myself who are capable of enthusiastic prose that render my humble musings pretty much irrelevant. Phil Plait is one such science writer (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/12/13/the-wind-is-no-longer-at-voyagers-back/), his blog is on my daily must read list.

I am making an exception for this event because I think it’s a fantastic achievement that should not be restricted to the scientifically literate. This is one of those moments in science that everyone should know about.

Something that men dreamed about, designed and built, when I was just a young child at school in a remote part of Central Africa, has been travelling across space for more than three quarters of my lifetime and is now arguably about to perform some of the most exciting science it has ever done. Even thinking about that makes me want to go out and blow huge amounts of cash on a telescope and start exploring the sky. Not to see the Voyager craft of course, if only that were possible, but to simply look at the lights in the night sky in awe and wonder.

In the coming years we will learn more about the edge of our solar system, about the interaction between our sun’s solar wind and deep space. The next big moment will come when the two Voyager craft make it into deep space. I genuinely look forward to hearing and reading about what is discovered there and how it will change or confirm what we already know. This really is an exciting moment in humankind’s exploration and discovery of what’s way out there.

The Humbling frailty of Man

The next craft to do this will be the New Horizons probe that is currently en route to Pluto. It will not leave our Solar System until 2029, 19 years from now, 24 years after launch. Who knows when the next one will be!

This makes this moment all the more unique.

Yet, in all the excitement about what this means, its also a very humbling moment. In what essentially amounts to half a lifetime these two craft have travelled the relatively tiny distance to the edge of a single stars domain in space. The distance to the next star is many orders of magnitude greater. Travelling through deep space is going to be a very lonely existence for an extremely long time.

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