If You Love Voyager, Like I Love Voyager

The New York Times has a remarkable article about the Voyager probe team. A number of people who prepared the mission or become involved as it approached the outer planets still log hours every day!

I’m an unabashed fan of the Voyager team and the probes they made, which have overperformed mission life and expectations by orders of magnitude. Over the years, I’ve written several articles about the history of the spacecraft and the state of the mission. I had the fortune to interview Ed Stone a few years back, and get his insight, plus some follow-up interviews and emails for later articles. Sounds like he’s as crystal sharp now as he was then.

  • Postcards from the Edge” (the Economist): An interview with Ed Stone about the mission.
  • In Praise of Celestial Mechanics” (the Economist): How NASA’s remote hands on Voyager 1 and 2 upgraded its ability to communicate when far from Earth.
  • Building the plane on the way up” (Meh.com): The hope in the heart of the Voyager missions was a piece of encoding hardware that allowed transmitting vastly more data than they could when launched, but which didn’t have a corresponding decoding hardware on Earth when they launched.
  • The software running on the Voyager probes is among the longest continuously running software ever written (MIT Technology Review). (With a proviso: it’s not one set of fixed code, and has been revised continuously as well, but it’s still the same hardware running code that governs a limited set of hardware.)
  • Has Voyager 1 left the solar system?” (the Economist): A quick explainer about how the sun’s magnetosphere works, and the scientific disagreement over what boundary Voyager 1 had crossed (if any). Later, the broad scientific consensus is that it left the heliosheath.
  • Where in the Solar System Has Voyager 1 Wound Up?” (Boing Boing): A deeper explanation of the sun’s various magnetic interactions, including the heliosheath, the magnetic bubble that deflects 75 percent of cosmic radiation.

Space Gets Farther Away

New Horizons, bound for Pluto

New Horizons, bound for Pluto

This week's Economist features two articles by yours truly about SPACE — and humanity's shortened reach.

You see, in the 1990s, America's budgets were flush, and we funded a ton of projects to send probes and landers and orbiters and oh my all over the place. Those missions came to fulfillment through the 2000s, and even as budget tightened, the early funding helped carry through missions that might take 10 years to plan and then several years to reach their target.

So Cassini is currently still active around Saturn, New Horizons reaches Pluto next month, and Juno orbits satellite in 2016. But nearly all current NASA missions outside of Mars start winding down after that. And then nothing heads out very ambitiously until the early 2020s, when the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA separately send missions to Jupiter, arriving by 2030, under current plans.

My first story, The worlds beyond, explains how this came to pass, what funding is needed, and what's to come. The second, NASA’s dark materials, is about an almost footnote: without an adequate supply of plutonium-238, a non-weapons-grade isotope, humanity's grasp is very very small. We need Pu-238 to power missions of all sorts—until it's routine to put nuclear reactors on spacecraft, which will happen at some unknown future date.

You can find these articles online, or in this week's print issue.