“Voyager”: the greatest of the space missions

In 1977, the mission of two spacecraft began, which changed our understanding of the solar system – and will soon become our message to the unknown. Richard Hollingham of the BBC spoke about the legacy of the Voyagers 40 years after launch and visited the place where the famous devices were created. Further – from the first person.

On the first floor of an indescribable suburban office block, made in beige colors, in Pasadena, California, history is created.

There is a story here literally every day.

This is the Mission Control Center at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where NASA monitors the Voyager spacecraft. This becomes clear if you look at the homemade cardboard sign over computer monitors, which reads: “The mission’s critical equipment is Voyager.” PLEASE, DO NOT TOUCH! “.

It does not seem like the control center of one of the most ambitious and audacious missions in the history of mankind. But this is it.

Over the past 40 years, two Voyager spacecraft have explored Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. They showed us in detail these strange worlds, hidden under the ice of the moon, covered with volcanoes and flooded with smog. These missions changed our view of the Earth and, thanks to the golden gramophone records attached to the sides of the satellites, sent human culture to the stars.

Most importantly, both space Voyager still work. Whenever Voyager 1 sends a signal to Earth, it does so from the furthest distance from all objects that ever left Earth.

Voyager 1 left the solar system in 2013 and (at the time of writing this article) passed 20 billion kilometers. Voyager 2, moving along a different trajectory, is 17 billion kilometers away. It would be easier for you to imagine this: a radio signal moving at the speed of light travels from Earth to Voyager 1 and back in 38 hours. “Voyager 2” needs about 30 hours.

These signals are fed into NASA’s deep space network – giant satellite dishes scattered around the world and designed to collect data from distant spacecraft. While I’m looking, mission dispatcher Enrique Medina is calling a ground station near Canberra in Australia to establish contact with Voyager 2. The spacecraft is so far away that engineers need to build two receivers to catch the signal from the outskirts of the solar system.

“The transmitter power on the spacecraft is about 12 watts,” says Medina. “When it works at the peak, it is about 20 watts – about like a light bulb in the refrigerator.”

Think about it. I live in a rural area 40 kilometers from London and I hardly get a signal to a mobile phone. NASA can catch a signal from a distance of 20 billion kilometers, sent from a 40-year-old 12-watt transmitter.

“I’m not surprised,” says Medina. “We are talking about the technologies of the 1970s.”

As he speaks, the screen is filled with numbers – new data from our avatars in deep space.

“People have always been explorers, pioneers,” says the scientist of the Voyager project, Ed Stone. “This is just the latest history of research using robotic devices. Voyager 1 is now dealing with material that fills most of the universe. ”

Stone is a legend among scientists. In his eighty he led and directed the Voyager mission in the JPL from the very beginning of designing and constructing apparatus in 1972. “Voyager” is the basis of almost everything I’ve done, “he says. “His mission gave us a broad overview of everything that is there – wherever we look, everywhere we find the diversity of nature.”

Another legend behind the Voyager missions is the late Karl Sagan, who directed the project to attach gold plates to the sides of each spacecraft. By the mid-1970s, the astrophysicist and astronomer of Cornell University had become one of the most famous scientists in the world. In addition to working on NASA missions, including the Viking-1, the first probe successfully landed on Mars, he wrote popular science books and regularly participated in television and radio programs.

With gold plates, Sagan played an important role in transforming what was essentially a scientific mission into an artistic and cultural mission. Copper discs, designed for one billion years, resemble vinyl records and are equally played with a needle included in an engraved body. Conceived as a message from the planet Earth to other civilizations, records include speech, music, sounds and even pictures coded in grooves.

“We tried to tell a little about what the planet Earth is about the creatures that live on it, and in particular about the species that made this record,” says artist John Lomberg, director of design of the golden record project. “The basic conditions were such that this message is not from NASA or the United States, but from Earth, reflecting the whole Earth, and not the nation or agency that sent it.”

But Sagan and Lomberg had a problem: they only gave NASA six weeks, from start to finish, to complete the project. “At the end of six weeks, we had to provide them with a physical record,” Lomberg says. “This is absurd.”

About a third of the music on the golden disc belongs to Western composers, including Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. Nevertheless, they also tried to present the music of the world. There everything was from Azerbaijani musical instruments to songs of dedication of girls from Zaire. Perhaps it was the first collection of all the music of the world.

And although Duke Ellington, Chuck Berry and the American gospel were represented on the record, Elvis Presley – who died shortly before the launch of Voyager 2 – did not.

“It’s amazing to see what they put in there, from the point of view of American music,” says Stephanie Nelson, a professor at California State University in Los Angeles and a specialist in world music. “Basically it’s black American music, which is very interesting.”

Music was the least controversial aspect of the whole project. The predecessors of Voyager, Pioneers 10 and 11 proudly carried plaques on which were engraved a naked man and woman. Team Voyager hoped to include the image of a nude pair on a gold disc.

“It seemed to me that this is the very essence of human nature,” says Lomberg, who spent many days searching for a suitable image that would not be pornographic or academic. He found a picture of a pregnant woman. “It seemed that this is what you need, but in NASA they said: in no case!”.

“When I tell this audience, she laughs,” Lomberg says. “It seems so intimate, so human, that it’s already funny.”

Voyager 2 was launched from Cape Canaveral on 20 August 1977; Voyager 1 is on the 5th of September. Although there was no nudity on board, the choice of 1977 was not a coincidence.

“It was in this year that he could fly past four giant planets,” Stone says. “We could launch the first spacecraft to Jupiter and Saturn, and if we succeeded, the second one would go to Uranus and Neptune.”

In addition to helping the spacecraft, the position of the planets also affected the fertility rate in the JPL. “I tell my daughters that their births coincided with a parade of planets,” says Linda Speelker, who started her career with Voyager and is now in charge of Cassini’s mission to Saturn. “Everything was calculated – a lot of Voyager’s children were born in the fifth anniversary between Saturn and Uranus.”

In 1978, 18 months after launch, Voyagers 1 and 2 began researching Jupiter, revealing its flaming clouds in unprecedented detail. The quality of the images from the onboard television camera was remarkable.

“Every time there was a surveillance, there was always something new,” says the head of the visualization team Harry Hunt. Coming from Imperial College London, Hunt was the only high-ranking British scientist in the mission. “History has changed.”

Some of the biggest scientific surprises came from satellites, which Voyager showed as something more than just inert pieces of stone. “Before the Voyagers, the only active volcanoes knew only on Earth,” Stone says. “Then we flew past Io, a satellite of Jupiter the size of our Moon, and it was 10 times more volcanic activity than on Earth.”

“Voyager” turned our earthly view of the solar system upside down. “Before Voyager, the only liquid ocean was here on Earth,” Stone says. “Then we saw a satellite of Jupiter Europe, with a cracked surface, and realized that under its surface was a liquid ocean.”

The original archive of mission images is now confined to a dusty closet in the back room at Queen Mary’s College in east London. When all the images are digitized, no one looks at the cardboard photos. But those very first shots were surprisingly high-quality. In particular, a picture taken after reaching the “Voyager 1” of Saturn in 1980.

“It was such a shock for us,” says Hunt, looking through the images of the rocky moon of Saturn, Mimas. “We called it the Death Star.”

In the same year, when the second film “Star Wars” was released – “The Empire Strikes Back”, scientists were amazed at how much this satellite looks like a full-fledged military station. A powerful conical piece was knocked out by a massive collision. “The blow was the strongest,” says Hunt. “A little more, and he would have broken the moon into pieces.”

But Saturn’s surprises did not stop there. Discovering new rings and identifying new satellites, Voyager devices found Titan with its thick petrochemical atmosphere and methane rain. They also sent back pictures taken from a short distance of Enceladus. This tiny ice-covered world was the size of England and at the same time was the most reflective body in the solar system. Both satellites subsequently investigated the mission of Cassini-Huygens, and today Enceladus is considered the best candidate for life.

“Each of the moons is unique,” says Emily Lakdawella, editor-in-chief of the Planetary Society. “Voyager” taught us that we need to go to Saturn to understand the nature of its satellites. ”

In November 1980, Voyager 1 left Saturn for a long journey from the solar system. Nine months later, Voyager 2 set out for outer planets. In 1986, he reached Uranus, took the first pictures of this gas giant, his rings and also discovered 10 new satellites.

When the spacecraft reached its last planetary destination, Neptune, in 1989, the moon again attracted the attention of scientists. The very last object that Voyager 2 saw was not the latest in attractiveness.

“Flying past Neptune’s satellite Triton, we saw erupting geysers of nitrogen,” says Stone. “From time to time, we found things on Earth that occur throughout the solar system.”

From the legacy of the Voyager, several missions have grown – as well as the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, the “Galileo” and “Juno” probes that visited Jupiter, and others. To Uranus or Neptune missions were not planned – and the pictures of Voyager 2 remained unique and unique.

Few expeditions in the history of mankind have brought so many scientific achievements, like the twin probes Voyager. But we also owe a lot to their technological heritage.

“It was the first computer-controlled spacecraft in history,” Stone says. “He still flies himself, he works himself, checks himself and can switch to backup systems, himself.”

We use the technology left by the Voyager every day. “Since the signals coming from deep space are so weak, we had to develop a coding system,” explains Stone. “Cell phones and CD players rely on the same technology, but the coding was originally designed to send things into space.” Similarly, image processing capabilities built into smartphones have evolved from technologies originally developed by Voyager engineers.

And yet the most important moment for Voyager took place on February 14, 1990. On this day, Voyager 2 turned its cameras to Earth to take pictures of the entire solar system. The view, on which the Earth was one pixel, is a “pale blue dot”, and which shows us our place in space.

“It’s a tiny thing floating in space – Earth with all the life we ​​know,” says Lakdaewell. “It’s getting scary when you look at this picture of the Voyager, this ray of light in the dark realm. It looks like a point of a laser pointer. A single event can destroy all life known in the universe. This precious image helps us understand how fragile and small our place in the universe is. ”

In 2013 Voyager 1 crossed the boundary between the space in which the magnetic field of the Sun reigned and the space between the stars. “The sun creates this big bubble around the planets,” Stone says. “This is a shield that protects us from cosmic rays from outside – now we are studying how our bubble interacts with the material from other stars.”

Voyager 1 continues to gather information about this emptiness, and in the coming years Voyager 2 will also go beyond the solar system. As he leaves a different angle, the data from Voyager 2 will give scientists an understanding of the shape of the solar bubble.

But time is running out. On space vehicles, nuclear batteries operate with electricity generated from the heat released during the decay of plutonium. Each year, it produces four watts less heat.

“The goal is to keep them in flight for as long as possible,” says Voyager program manager Susie Dodd. “For 40 years, one of the twins became worse to hear, and the other to see, so we need to be careful with them.”

“We are disconnecting unnecessary systems,” she says. “We use only tools that can receive data, wherever the devices are – we no longer control the cameras, because it’s still not visible, the space is very, very dark.”

Part of the energy goes to keep the devices warm and the instruments do not freeze.

One day – in the next 10 years – Voyagers 1 and 2 will be disconnected. “I think it will be a very sad day for NASA and for humanity – it will be like losing a grandfather or a close relative who lived a full and full life,” she says. “One day we will wait for the signal from the Voyager and we will not get it.”

In a sense, however, the Voyager mission will continue forever. Perhaps longer than human civilization.

“I would like to believe that someday in the future, someone or something will find them, lose the gold record and look at the already ancient civilization,” says Dodd. “Our Earth may long ago have decayed by the time a gold plate is found.”

“Voyager” will be our quiet envoy in the Milky Way, “adds Stone. “They will revolve around the center of the galaxy for billions of years.” But he does not think that someone will find satellites. Because the space is really empty. But, perhaps, this is not the main thing. With time capsules from the Earth, the missions of Voyager carry the world of 1977 into the distant future.

“Voyagers” made humanity immortal.