Voyager 1, the little spacecraft that could, continues to travel through space and sometime soon, if all continues to go well, will reach the end of the solar system and travel into the realm beyond. Launched 35 years ago this week, Voyager 1's original mission was to tour Jupiter and Saturn report its findings to Earth. It fulfilled that mission and more. Now more than 11 billion miles from the sun, it continues a voyage of exploration that boggles the mind.
Voyager 1 is now traveling through the fringe of the solar system, which is enveloped in a giant plasma bubble created by charged particles from the sun. Beyond the bubble, scientists say, is a new frontier -- the space between the stars. No one is sure when Voyager will reach that remote and fascinating territory. There are no maps to indicate precisely where the line that separates the solar system and interstellar space is located.
Consequently, it might be a couple of weeks, several months or even a couple of years before Voyager 1 crosses the border. One thing is certain, though. The spacecraft has performed flawlessly for well over three decades. That's a marvelous testament to American ingenuity and know-how. All indications are that Voyager 1 is likely to continue to do so. After all, it has enough fuel to last until 2020. It is not an exaggeration, then, to say that Voyager 1 is an over-achiever. It has done far more than originally hoped with a minimum of technology to assist the mission.
When it was launched in 1977, Voyager 1 was equipped with what was the most up-to-date technology available at the time. It contained, scientists report, 68 kilobytes of computer memory. Compare that to the today's widely available 8-gigabyte iPod Nano 8, which is 100,000 times more powerful. The Voyager 1 also employs an eight-track tape recorder, a relic of the past that pales in versatility and utility to the digital devices employed on contemporary spacecraft. Still, the spacecraft flies on, communicating regularly with scientists at home as it moves toward the unknown.
The work and travels of Voyager 1 and its companion spacecraft Voyager 2, which is now 9 billion miles from the sun, are reminders that new frontiers remain for mankind to explore, even if it is done with equipment that belongs in a museum or antiques shop. Every minute of every day, the Voyagers continue to make history. They already are the longest operating spacecraft and the most traveled in history. The record is exceptional.
Some short-sighted penny-pinchers might argue that the cost of the Voyager missions -- $983 million in 1977 dollars and $3.7 billion in 2012 dollars -- is exorbitant. It is not. A compelling argument can and should be made that the knowledge the missions have provided and that will be gained as the spacecraft continue their voyages is priceless.
Voyager 1 still works after 35 years in the harshest conditions imaginable. It continues to inspire terrestrial imaginations as it soars toward interstellar space. It continues to expand our knowledge of the heavens near and far. And it continues to build the foundation for more exploration of the solar system and beyond. Voyager 2 does the same. Those are amazing accomplishments for a primitive spacecraft that left Earth so long go.