NASA's Voyager will teach us about future deep space missions

Scientist who spearheaded Voyager from its inception talks about his own life's mission

As NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft travels outside the solar system, scientists hope to learn about the forces pushing on the "bubble" around the sun and how interstellar radiation could affect future space exploration.

"There's never been anything like this," said Ed Stone, chief scientist for the Voyager mission. "Nothing has ever been outside the solar bubble before. Nothing."

Stone is hardly a newcomer to the Voyager mission. He was the chief scientist on the project during Voyager's planning stages in the early 1970s.

Not only did Voyager 1 make history by becoming the first human-made spacecraft to journey beyond our solar system, but it did so on 36- to 40-year-old technology, Stone told Computerworld on Friday.

"This was one of our long-range hopes," Stone said. "We had no way to know at the time that this was possible because we didn't know how far away the edge of the bubble was. When Voyager was launched, the space age was only 20 years old. Most things didn't even last a few years back then. We had no idea if Voyager could last for 36 years and go as far as it has."

To put it in perspective, a smartphone today has 240,000 more memory than Voyager 1. That makes the Voyager 1 probe a testament to the power of engineering.

"This whole mission has been a major part of my life," Stone said. "I've been so fortunate to be part of this historic journey. This is the first spacecraft to sail in the cosmic sea between the stars."

The Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 with its twin spacecraft, Voyager 2 . On Thursday, NASA announced what had already been suspected -- that the spacecraft had left the solar system and had entered interstellar space in August 2012. The probe has journeyed between 14 billion and 15 billion miles.

"The Voyager team needed time to analyze those observations and make sense of them," Stone said during a press conference Thursday. "But we can now answer the question we've all been asking -- 'Are we there yet?' Yes, we are."

Stone explained that it took scientists months to figure out whether Voyager 1 had left the solar system because the instrument that Voyager used to measures plasma, an ionic gas, stopped working in 1980. Plasma is different depending on whether it is inside or outside the heliosphere, which is like a bubble that surrounds the sun. Without that measurement tool, scientists had to analyze plasma waves, which was a more time-consuming process.

Now that Voyager 1 is outside of the heliosphere, scientists will study, for the first time, galactic cosmic rays, interstellar winds and the movement of the heliosphere.

"For the first time, we're seeing radiation from outside the solar system," Stone said. "We're observing the intensity of radiation outside the bubble. The bubble kind of protects us. It's charged particles and doesn't let the outside radiation in... We will see how our star, within its sphere, is interacting with what's around it."

The interstellar radiation and winds constantly put differing amounts of pressure on the outside of the heliosphere. If that pressure grows, how does it affect the size and shape of the heliosphere, and how does the heliosphere keep out that added interstellar radiation?

Those are questions that scientists want to answer, Stone said. The answers will also affect future deep space travel.

The Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field would protect the planet from any extra interstellar radiation. However, the planet Mars, asteroids or distant moons around other planets would not be protected.

That means any robotic spacecraft or rovers, along with any spacecraft carrying astronauts, would be affected by increased levels of radiation if they were traveling through deep space.

"This would affect any kind of flight outside the Earth's magnetic field," said Stone. "It's very important to know how intense this interstellar radiation is... This is a long-term issue."

NASA scientists also are looking forward to the day when Voyager 2 also leaves the solar system and enters interstellar space. Stone said he expects that will happen in three to four years.

Voyager 2 also has a working plasma measurement instrument.

Having both probes past the heliosphere would give scientists two different sets of data, and a more complex image of space, to study.

"It's a whole new journey of exploration," Stone said. "It's the first journey between the stars. It's like sailing on the ocean for the first time after leaving land. We're out in this cosmic sea. Most of the universe, by the way, is this kind of interstellar stuff. This will give us information about most of the volume of the Milky Way."

This article, NASA's Voyager will teach us about future deep space missions, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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This story, "NASA's Voyager will teach us about future deep space missions" was originally published by Computerworld.

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