I remember seeing an amazing documentary called painting with numbers. It covered the beginnings of computer graphics. It was around the time when the “Space Race” was in its final days. Modern warfare stimulates technological development tenfold. During the time of the cold war, hindered by MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) the “Space Race” provided the modern equivalent of the technological advantages usually confined to the hot wars that preceded it. It did this with only 13 lives lost. Despite the fact the lunar module had only 2 “486” computers on board the technological spin offs lasted for decades afterward. It also left us with the much feared millennium bug awaiting us at the centuries turn. Didn’t that turn out to be a “whimper” rather than a “bang”? Nevertheless the Space Race was the political sharp end of the Cold war.
Who would get there first? Dogs and monkeys died for the cause. Did the walk on the moon advance our scientific knowledge of the solar system? Not really. Behind all this the NASA project with the potential to advance our knowledge of space, was the Voyager project.
It was not sexy. It was having trouble attracting corporate funds. Even the tax payers were tired. The moon shot had drained the purses of NASA’s big business contributors. Those pesky Russians had got into space first but the US of A got to the moon first and declared themselves winners of the space race and no humans have ever been back since. The Voyager project languished in its aftermath.
In an endeavour to advertise the NASA project some of the first computer graphic artists at Utah University were commissioned to produce a fly by animation showing Voyagers projected journey through our solar system. At the heart of this computer graphic animation was a man considered the father of computer graphics, Jim Blinn. The amazing thing was that the graphic artists were updating their artist’s impressions of the planets with the real details as the images started to come back from Voyager’s cameras. I think it was Jim Blinn in an interview in the documentary who said that in one of the areas on Mars they had put dramatic mountains and valleys only to find the real images showed only long flat, dead and boring plains. They left their impressionist mountains in. They projected the dismay of some future Martian explorer in a “wtf” moment with his Martian map.
This month on September the 12th, Voyager left our solar system. This wonderful little (722 kilogram) space probe on its 36 year long journey is the first manmade object to have left our solar system for the dark depths of interstellar space.
“Voyager 1’s departure is an incredible achievement in the context of space exploration. It has covered about 19 billion kilometres since its launch, due largely to the sling-shot action of other planets.” – Warrick Couch (Director of the Australian Astronomical Observatory.)
“Not even NASA expected the craft to withstand the harsh environment of space for 36 years, much less bring fascinating results back of the kind of environment that exists beyond our solar system.” – Astrophysicist Alan Duffy (Melbourne University)
Launched on the 5th September 1977 Voyager I had on-board software with less than 40 KB of memory. A 16 GB iPhone 5 has about 240,000 times the memory of the Voyager spacecraft. Designed by pencil and paper in a pre-computer age this amazing little space probe still transmits data back to Earth using a 22.4 Watt transmitter, the equivalent of a refrigerator light bulb. Those signals take 17 hours at the speed of light to reach Earth.
“It’s amazing it’s lasted as long as it has. I don’t know how we could have done things much better than they were done. I mean things do wear out, and we’ve had to switch to some of our backup systems, but fortunately we have backup systems. That was part of the wonderful design of Voyager.” – Edward Stone
The probes plutonium power supply will not run out until somewhere between 2020 and 2025. The darkness of interstellar space renders the on-board cameras useless so they have been turned off.
Si-Fi writers have made much of the gold plated disc placed on the probe. The predictable not very imaginative scenario goes: Aliens find the disc, follow the probes pathway back to earth and wipe us all out. The audio visual disc contains photographs of our life forms, spoken greetings from already forgotten world leaders and a medley of the sounds of earth. This includes a version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode” which is ridiculous in itself but may well keep any self-respecting alien well and truly away. Even when its power supply shuts down it will continue on and in 40,000 years from now approach our nearest neighbouring stars.
Voyagers solitary one way journey was followed by other Voyager and Pioneer probes the last being the New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006. Not only have all these probes given us amazing science and photographs of the planets within our solar system they will eventually help answer the disputed question of where in fact does the solar system end and the unknown begin?
For someone like me who bought their first computer in the 70’s and eagerly awaited each weeks “Star Trek” episode, Voyagers journey mirrors our own journey of discovery with technology into a world now we could never have imagined in 1977. I don’t care if Voyager I turns out to be a modern message in a bottle on an endless sea never to be found or if it brings back a ravaging alien race bent on our destruction, I have nothing but admiration and respect for the designers and operators and commend them on the success of their brainchild as it now leaves us behind for the great unknown.