“Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Lewis Carroll
This month began with some exciting news – the Voyager 2 spacecraft reported an uptick in the number and type of cosmic rays it was encountering!
Okay, maybe that’s not exciting news to everyone. But for anyone who’s interested in space exploration, the announcement from NASA points to an imminent milestone. In the coming months, the spacecraft will be the second man-made object to leave the solar system. We will have another messenger among the stars.
In the late summer of 1977, the two Voyager spacecraft were launched. Scientists hoped to take advantage of a unique line-up of the outer planets to capture closeup images and information about Jupiter and Saturn. Using gravity-assist propulsion from the ringed-giant, Voyager 2 also visited Uranus and Neptune.
The original mission accomplished, the two spacecraft continued out into the far reaches of the solar system. In 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space when it passed through the heliopause – the boundary set by the Sun’s solar winds. Now its sister satellite is about to break free as well.
As a teenager in the 1970s, I was fascinated by the Voyager mission. 41 years later, I’m still fascinated. Somehow, scientists are still in contact with these far-flung objects - Voyager 1 is over 13 billion miles (21.5 billion kilometers) away; and Voyager 2 is over 11 billion miles (17.7 billion kilometers) away from Earth. Every bit of data sent by their transmitters increases our knowledge of our galactic neighborhood.
There are plenty of arguments for and against the space program. Some people think we should solve problems on this planet before looking at other planets. Others point out the technological benefits created for the space program that are now in our everyday lives. Plus, learning about other planets and objects in the solar system help us better understand our own.
Most importantly, explorers inspire dreams. Ocean explorers discovering unchartered regions. Polar explorers studying the harshest environments on this planet. Geologists and archeologists uncovering information about our distant past.
Then there’s space – where science fiction and science overlap.
For countless millennia we looked to the sky. Then the Wright brothers taught us to fly. The Apollo astronauts brought us to the moon. The Hubble Telescope (which provided the image at the top of this post) gives us glimpses to distant planets and galaxies. On the International Space Station, political foes put aside their differences, as we learn how to withstand the rigors of long-term space travel.
These images and encounters inspire us – including the next generation. Not just the scientists who will take us further, but the poets and writers who’ll describe what we may find out there. A young student in the classroom may try a bit harder so they can be part of the team that visits Mars. Another may uncover what exploring the planets tells us about our inner selves.
The future will be shaped by the dreamers – dreamers who will take us to the unknown.