Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Voyager 1 and The Space Race

Recent news that Voyager 1 is close to the edge of our solar system got me thinking about the space race. What was the space race? Well as I recall it, the race was to get the first man on the moon. Given that there were only two competitors, the USA and USSR, I suppose it was the space equivalent of the cold war, where military supremacy in the form of nuclear arms, was taken out of this world with the battle to be the mightiest in space.

So we had the American Apollo space programme with their astronauts and we had the Russian Soyuz space programme with their cosmonauts. The cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin of course achieved history, and fame, as the first human to enter space orbit in 1961. This was the year before I was born so I have no memory of this, but I do remember the Apollo spacecraft vividly. It's greatest triumph, the mother of all victories, the winning goal in the World Cup Final, was in 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on its surface. With those steps he uttered the now immortal words:

That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Wow the whole world was glued to the TV to witness the ghost like black and white images of Neil Armstrong stepping down from the lunar module onto the planet for the very first time.

Although the space race pretty much ground to a halt in the mid 1970s I was inspired by the latest report on the achievements that have been made by Voyager 1. It is easy to forget that this space probe was actually launched in 1977, so it has been on its journey for over 33 years!. This compares with the 3 day journey to reach the moon!

The Nasa probes' initial goal was to survey the outer planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, a task completed in 1989. They were then despatched towards deep space, in the general direction of the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy.

Sustained by their radioactive power packs, the probes' instruments continue to function well and return data to Earth, although the vast distance between them and Earth means a radio message now has a travel time of about 16 hours.

Now 17.4bn km (10.8bn miles) from home, the veteran probe has detected a distinct change in the flow of particles that surround it. These particles, which emanate from the Sun, are no longer travelling outwards but are moving sideways. It means Voyager must be very close to making the jump to interstellar space - the space between the stars.

Edward Stone, the Voyager project scientist, lauded the explorer and the fascinating science it continues to return 33 years after launch.

"When Voyager was launched, the space age itself was only 20 years old, so there was no basis to know that spacecraft could last so long," he told BBC News.

"We had no idea how far we would have to travel to get outside the Solar System. We now know that in roughly five years, we should be outside for the first time."


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