The large antennas of the Deep Space network (in California, Australia, and Madrid) periodically listen to the weak signals of the probe Voyager 1, which has been flying in space since 1977. Almost 45 years. Typically, the data they receive is about plasma density, magnetic fields, and cosmic rays. They are the only instruments on the ship that are still working, the others having been switched off long ago to save power; furthermore, the region through which he moves now there is no longer anything that could be of interest to, for example, his television cameras.
But recently, telemetry indicated that the main antenna had drifted and was no longer pointing toward Earth. And the signs kept coming. Both things are incompatible and simply point to a failure in the sensors of the orientation mechanism: the ship is still in its correct alignment, but its messages insist that it is not. The simplest explanation is that part of the data coding system has succumbed to the intense radiation it is experiencing.
The Voyager 1 It is the ship that has reached the furthest in space, to the point that it makes no sense to express the distance in kilometers. They are tens of billions. It is more practical to resort to units that are commonly used in astronomy: more than twenty light hours. And it continues to increase, at a rate of about 60,000 kilometers every hour.
This probe was launched with the aim of closely studying the two giant planets: Jupiter and Saturn. Despite her number, it took off a fortnight after her twin, the Voyager 2, but by following a faster path, it would end up overtaking it and reaching its destination sooner. The trip to Jupiter took almost two years; to Saturn, the same, thanks to the acceleration that he experienced when passing in front of Jupiter.
The Voyager they were not the first to visit Jupiter and Saturn. Before them, two other vehicles in the series had done it. Pioneer. But its instrumentation, and especially its cameras, were very primitive. The photographs of both planets and many of their satellites that transmitted the Voyager they discovered a series of worlds whose appearance no one had suspected before: the volcanoes of Io, the icy plains of Europa, the impact of several asteroids or the intricate structure of the rings of Saturn, for example. And, much later, the iconic family photo showing all the planets as tiny bright dots. Among them, the “pale blue dot” with which Carl Sagan described the Earth.
Both Voyager They are on an escape path. They will never come close to Earth again. They have already crossed the border where the Sun’s influence yields to interstellar fields and plasma concentrations. But it cannot be said that they have completely freed themselves from their attraction. The Voyager 1 It has not yet traveled half the distance that Sedna, one of the small dwarf planets, reaches, and it still has two or three centuries to go before it touches the Oort cloud, the theoretical spherical swarm where millions of comets accumulate that some day perhaps they will fall towards the Sun.
NASA technicians calculate that the energy source that powers it – a plutonium reactor – will reach critical levels by 2025. Its emissions will be so weak that even large tracking antennas will not be able to pick them up. From there, the Voyagers will continue on their way, blind and dumb. Neither will pass reasonably close to another star, at least for tens of thousands of years. By then, their trajectory will turn them into tiny objects spinning through the dust clouds of the Milky Way.
And attached to one side, both vehicles carry the equivalent of the classic message in a bottle, in the remotest hope that someone can one day rescue it: A metal disc on which images, noises, music and voices of the planet from where they have been recorded have been recorded. those first interstellar ships left, eons ago.
Raphael Clement He is an industrial engineer and was the founder and first director of the Barcelona Science Museum (now CosmoCaixa). He is the author of ‘A small step to [un] man’ and ‘The other Apollos’ (Dome Books).
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