Sunday, October 09, 2005

Voyager 1 Enters 'Termination Shock'

Really far out

NASA's Voyager 1 extends humanity's presence to outer reaches of solar system

Florida Today
     Talk about being a long way from home.

     NASA's Voyager 1 probe -- 28 years and more than 8 billion miles from Earth -- has written still more history by passing the boundary that separates our solar system from the reaches of deep space.

     The region is called "termination shock" because it marks the point where the sun's influence ends and the solar wind crashes into the thin gas between the stars, NASA says.

     No spacecraft has reached this neverland before, meaning Voyager 1 has extended humanity's presence to the furthest point yet in the cosmos.

     The next stop will be the heliopause, where interstellar space officially begins, and with it the final frontier that's the destination of Voyager 1's infinite journey.

     The new discovery is revealed in the current issue of the journal Nature, and is another in an inspiring list of Voyager 1 achievements that spotlight the unparalleled scientific knowledge gained by NASA's robot probes.

     Such knowledge shows why such missions are worth every penny, and why Congress shouldn't allow NASA to short-change them as the agency funnels its limited money to send astronauts back to the moon.

     Indeed, the deep-space pilgrimages of Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, are among the most remarkable of our time.

     The spacecraft were launched from Cape Canaveral in 1977 to conduct the first reconnaissance of the solar system's giant gas planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

     Between them, the probes explored all four bodies and 48 of their moons.

     In the process, they literally rewrote textbooks and provided insights into how the solar system was born and evolved, and how life may exist at places such as Jupiter's moon Europa, where a liquid sea is thought to exist under a frozen surface.

     But that was hardly the end of it.

     Built to last five years, the spacecraft proved to be iron men and were sent on trajectories taking them out of the solar system. They are expected to continue returning data another two or three decades until their nuclear power supply runs out.

     The Voyagers' legacy is evident in the thoroughbred spacecraft that have followed, and the engineers and mission managers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who have designed the craft and flown many other bold missions.

     They include Galileo, which dissected Jupiter and its moons; Cassini, which is on an expedition at Saturn; and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers cruising around Mars' surface long past their planned lifetimes.

     These spacecraft and others have allowed us to live in a new golden age of discovery, made all the more stunning by instant, fingertip-access to their pictures and findings on NASA Web sites.

     So to Voyager 1 and its sistership we wish more good luck, and say don't stop now.

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