Sat. Feb 4th, 2023
NASA's Voyagers: 35 Years of Inspiration [Update: Now it’s 40]
This weekend, NASA’s historic Voyager spacecraft celebrate their 40th year in space. The missions have brought humanity many awe-inspiring discoveries over those four decades, and Voyager 1 and 2 have spawned an infinite number of other initiatives or related works as well (like a great new documentary debuting this week). To mark the occasion, we resurface with this 2012 appreciation that describes something else that has inspired Voyager forever: our science editor.

August 20, 1977 turned out to be a before-and-after moment for me – and probably for many other people as well. However, none of us knew then since the launch of Voyager 2 (followed a few weeks later by Voyager 1) was clearly not a problem for most people. In fact, I wouldn’t fully appreciate the change until sometime in 1980.

To understand why, a bit of history is in order. NASA had been sending probes to other planets such as the Mariner and Pioneer series since the 1960s. But even the best technology of the time was quite limited in terms of what it could do remotely. And for most of that time, they were heavily overshadowed by manned exploration, first the Apollo missions and Skylab, and later space shuttle planning. In fact, even as the Voyagers flew past Jupiter, I seem to recall more attention being paid to Skylab’s approaching de-orbit, which later that year scattered charred pieces of itself across Australia.

But for me everything changed with the arrival of the January issue of National Geographic early next year. The image, of an erupting volcano on Jupiter’s moon Io, was simply stunning. The contents continued to amaze. Supersonic winds in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Beautiful photos of the Great Red Spot. Water ice is changing the surface of Europa. I can’t even imagine how many times I’ve re-read the issue.

More problems like this came as the Voyagers passed over the other outer planets, but the Jupiter issue was the one that delivered on the pre- and post-launch promise of the Voyagers.

A new look at science

I had always had an interest in science, going back to things like a childhood addiction to all things dinosaurs and a love of PBS specials. But like most other kids, I had operated under the distorted view of science presented by the typical textbooks at the time: make a hypothesis, run some direct tests, and draw a conclusion. The Voyagers have turned all that on its head.

Who wrote National Geographic’s news coverage brilliantly captured the fact that scientists sometimes do things to see what’s out there, rather than being driven by a specific hypothesis. And very often they are actually surprised by what they find. Europe almost crater-free? None of our previous planetary visits had suggested that such a thing would be likely. Active volcanoes on a moon? That was not on the mission list.

The discovery of Io’s volcanoes even showed that serendipity played a role in science. If the story is correct, they were not even found during the observations aimed at the moon. Instead, a camera designed simply to select stars for navigation purposes happened to capture an outburst while trying to get a fix on a nearby star.

It also became clear that the whole idea of ​​science being about direct tests needed to be revised a bit. The Voyagers had cameras and spectrometers that told us about the composition of various things they observed. But they also had magnetometers, which simply recorded what was happening in their immediate surroundings. It was clear that those measurements could be plugged into models that told us something about the environment as a whole and, more generally, what was going on with Jupiter and its moons to generate that environment.

And those models weren’t static things that you tested and then accepted or rejected. Tidal forces were quickly pinpointed as the cause of the heat that made Jupiter’s inner moons such dynamic places, but the details were revised, debated, and a fair amount of uncertainty remained attached. Other data were described even when it was made clear that there was no consensus on what could possibly explain it.

You can see how much of an impression this made on me based on the fact that I still remember all this over 30 years later.

A new representation of the universe

But like the best of science, the Voyagers didn’t just change their angle of science; they changed how we look at the world.

It may be hard to imagine now, but I had grown up in a time when we believed that Earth was the only active volcanoes in the solar system and that all the bodies we’d explored were so hostile that life wasn’t a realistic option. Now we regularly talk about the active geology of places like Io and Titan, and the relative prospects for life on different moons. The Voyagers have completely changed the way we talk about the solar system and our place in it.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the Voyagers also shaped how we view the rapidly expanding catalog of extrasolar planets. Rather than view them through the lens of the aridity of Mars or the hellish conditions of Mercury and Venus, the Voyagers made it possible to envision other worlds as part of a cacophony of different environments, including some we see in our own. solar system have not seen. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Voyagers didn’t help some people search for planets in the first place.

Now, more than 30 years later, the Voyagers’ greatest discoveries form part of the background to how I view science and the universe. But they continue to amaze for another reason: their longevity. NASA builds its hardware to survive incredibly harsh environments, so when nothing goes seriously wrong, it’s become common practice for missions to continue well past their expected completion. Still, 35 years of operation and data sent back from the edge of space between the stars is just stunning proof of the Voyagers’ engineering.

They’ll probably never change the world again, but it’s somehow nice to think that their scientific careers have continued to encompass all the world they helped inspire: mine.

By akfire1

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