Call me a grand total nerd if you must (Lord knows others have–and they’ve been right) but I think that the fact that Voyager 1 is now approaching the heliosheath–the beginning of interstellar space for you non-nerds–is hands down the most amazing science story since Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel figured out that there really was a consistent method life used to transfer physical characteristics from one generation to the next.
I was 11 years old when this machine–very possibly the best machine any team of humans have ever designed and built, considering that it’s now 8.7 billion miles away and not only does it still work, but it still has power and transmits data back to us–and nobody in my family had any clue that 26 years later we’d be reading about it preparing to leave the solar system. Back then, astronomy was, well, simpler. There were 9 planets. Jupiter had 12 moons, Saturn had 9. Men had walked on the moon and plans were in the works for moon bases and probes to the asteroid belt. Plans for the Enterprise-class STS fleet had been finalized by NASA and space stations would be built in the next decade.
Well, as predictions go, those weren’t all bad ones: NEAR has been sent out to see what’s what, and Near Earth Asteroids are now real targets of study; the gas giants have dozens of moons, and we’re constantly wondering whether Pluto should be reclassified as an asteroid (planetoid?) The STS fleet has had major setbacks–trouble is that there are no real plans to replace them (not that I know of–please someone write to tell me I’m wrong!)
On the other hand, space is still big–really big, and light may not be the fastest speed; heck, light may be slowing down and the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate due to dark energy. We know so much about the universe there there are literally no computers big enough to crunch the data in less than a lifetime. Particle physics has shown us just how primitive our mathematics are, and until they improve, we won’t know if there are more than 10 dimensions or 10,000. The universe is incredible and probably unknowable. And for the first time we have a real sense of just how crazy the whole thing is . . . that’s the sort of stuff that should frighten any sane person. Einstein is on record as having said that the most important question to be answered was whether or not the universe is a friendly place. Personally, I think it’s not–but I’m a teensy bit paranoid. On the other hand, I realize that the universe, having lit a fire under our chemistry about 4.5 billion years ago, has been trying to kill us pretty much since that day and hasn’t succeeded yet. Yet. In the meantime, I think we’re pushing our luck.
Anyway, if it does succeed, then I expect that Voyager 1 will still be hanging around somewhere in (or past) the heliosheath, in some form, circling the solar system in an ever-widening orbit, carrying the combined greetings of the human race in 55 languages and instructions on how to listen to them.
Even if there’s nobody out there to hear them, that’s just plain cool.