Wednesday, May 25, 2005

So Cool (Science Geek Stuff)

I'm a popular science geek, and I have no problem admitting it. If astronomy and space exploration don't get your juices flowing, don't bother reading further. But I've got to tell you, an absolutely amazing this is happening right now.

In 1977 the Voyager I probe was launched to explore Jupiter and Saturn. In 1979 it reached Jupiter and returned amazing information about the planet and its moons including the first images ever recorded of volcanic activity outside of earth (Voyager took pictures of active volcanos on Io - one of Jupiter's major moons). Late in 1980, Voyager I flew by Saturn, and after sending back data about this gaseous giant, began its trip out of the solar system - a trip it has been on for the past 25 years. The amazing thing is that Voyager I is still sending signals and scientific data back to earth!

Voyager 1 has travelled about 9 billion miles since it began its journey, and apparently has passed through the "termination shock" a boundary that marks the limit of our solar system and the start of interstellar space. Essentially at this boundary, particles from the solar wind (and their effects) diminish significantly. Recently instruments abord Voyager have been sending back data indicating a significant reduction in the solar wind - exactly what is expected at this termination shock boundary. So now Voyager has entered the heliosheath - a kind of boundary space between the solar system and interstellar space. And Voyager will continue to send signals to the Earth until about 2020. I'm sorry, if that doesn't amaze and delight you, then there is something seriously wrong with you.

An interesting pop-culture connection here is that the original Star Trek movie is about Voyager. The premise is that somewhere out there Voyager bumps into intelligent life. Now it is a true fact that Voyager carries with it a plaque and a recording designed to alert another intelligent civilization to the fact that we exist. It is also designed to make Voyager's mission clear: to explore and learn about space. In the Star Trek movie, this intelligent life (the aliens are never identified) enhance Voyager with artificial intelligence so that it can continue on and complete its mission. Of course this has unexpected results. The whole thing is clearly fictional, but knowing that the real Voyager is still out there, and is in fact heading into galactic space, kind of makes the Star Trek idea just a little more real.

Anyway, I saw an article on it, and I thought it very cool.


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