11/16/2012 10:19 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

The Voyager 1 Space Probe and the Generations of Scientists Who Care For It

In September of 2012, the Voyager 1 -- a NASA space probe that has been travelling away from the Earth at about 35,000 miles-per-hour since it launched in 1977 -- changed the human race forever. While we, here on Earth, spent those 35 years being extra-humany -- arguing about federal budgets, science versus faith and progress versus conservatism -- the Voyager 1 sailed along, high above our corporeal bewilderments, headed for history and the edge of our solar system.

Voyager 1 is no stranger to making history. Proposed in the 1960s as a probe -- then named the Mariner 11 -- that would study the outermost planets in our solar system, it quickly became the victim of budget cuts and congressional bickering. The probe's mission was scaled back to become a simple fly-by of Jupiter and Saturn. With this new mission, the probe received a new design and a new name: Voyager 1.

Voyager 1 launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on September 5, 1977. A sister probe, the Voyager 2, with a similar mission launched two weeks earlier, but due to Voyager 1's shorter trajectory, it reached Jupiter first -- in 1979. For two months, Voyager 1 floated above the Jovian planet -- photographing its storms, moons, rings and magnetic fields. Voyager 1 made the discovery that Jupiter's moon, "Io," had volcanic activity.

From Jupiter, Voyager 1 sailed on to Saturn, where it arrived in 1980. Studying Saturn's cloudy atmosphere from just 77,000 miles above the planet's surface, Voyager 1 was able to capture and send home some of the most stunning photos of Saturn's rings ever seen by mankind.

Then -- something went wrong. Voyager 1 sailed a little too close to Saturn and the stronger gravitational pull of the ringed planet slingshot Voyager 1 off its Pluto-bound trajectory, and out toward -- nothing else. NASA could have corrected the probe's trajectory, but decided instead to let the probe have its way and sail into nothing.

And so it went. Voyager 1 sailed away from the Earth for another 18 years. In 1998, Voyager 1 passed the Pioneer 10 probe at a distance of 69.419 AU (Astronomical Units) -- or 6,452,899,190 (6.45 x 10^9) miles -- and earned the distinction of being the farthest man-made object from Earth -- a title the probe will hold for the rest of time.

Despite its unprecedented distance from the Earth, Voyager 1 is still able to maintain regular communication with NASA. Radio signals are transmitted back and forth from the probe using NASA's Deep Space network of satellites. A single transmission to or from the probe requires 17 hours to travel through the dark of space -- even though, in the vacuum of space, radio waves travel at the speed of light -- 186,282 miles-per-second.

It was via these radio signals that, six years later in 2004, Voyager 1 alerted NASA to the fact that it was entering the "terminal shock" -- a border region of our solar system where our sun's solar winds begin to swirl and mix with the interstellar medium -- or, the space between the stars. In 2010, Voyager 1 sent word that it was approaching the "heliosheath" -- or, the outer layer of the terminal shock where the solar winds from our sun decrease to zero and our solar system ends.

In September 2012, Voyager 1 sent back readings indicating that the number of cosmic ray collisions skyrocketed (pardon the pun) -- possibly indicating the sudden lack of the heliosheath's protection -- and that solar particle collisions dropped to near zero -- possibly indicating that the power of our sun was no longer reaching the probe. The scientific community is now hotly debating whether or not these two sharp changes to a 35-year trend in data are conclusive enough to state that the probe is now beyond our solar system. If so, this would be another first for humanity in a long line of firsts achieved by this aging probe: the entrance into Deep Space.

The question of when Voyager 1 will leave (or has left) the solar system is exciting, but generally not important. The fact is that it will soon, or already has, left the solar system -- and therefore it has moved the human race into a new chapter of humanity as interstellar beings.

Our reach is expanding, and as the Voyager 1 project has proven, exploration on this scale requires the committed work of many generations of scientists. Therefore, our priorities must not be corporeal (cutting taxes to make the wealthy wealthier), but aspirational (significantly increasing funding for math and science education for the next generation of explorers). We must expand our vision beyond the brevity of our own lives.

This universe -- and the challenge of exploring it -- is bigger than any one of us. We will one day exhaust the Earth's resources. It might just be a simple 200-year-old probe, with a long list of firsts and 70-years beyond a wrong turn, that discovers the key to our survival.

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