Voyager 1 Out On A Spree? NASA and JPL Aren't Sure.

Up Above The World So High
| NASA/JPL Photo

Wednesday was freedom day for humankind. The spree lasted about three hours.

News of a study by William Webber of New Mexico State University and Frank McDonald of the University of Maryland in Geophysical Review Letters seemed to suggest that the Voyager 1 probe had reached the limit of the sun's influence on the envelope of space around the solar system. Having passed that point, Voyager 1 would become the first human thing to enter deep space.

It that's so, then everything of earth, of human history, of the past 4.5 billion years was behind it.

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NASA didn't go that far, even though Voyager 1 is now more than 11 billion miles from the sun.

As project leader Edward Stone explained when the media called JPL on Wednesday afternoon for confirmation, Voyager 1 is still at home cosmologically, although the spacecraft seems to have passed into the "heliocliff" -- a newly identified in-between space in space that is not entirely uninfluenced by the sun. "It is the consensus of the Voyager science team," Stone added to dampen expectations, "that Voyager 1 has not yet left the solar system or reached interstellar space."

Voyager 1's day off was over.

Voyager 1 and 2 were launched to make a photographic and radiometric tours of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Having carried out their mission, the two spacecraft angled outward toward the stars. The nearest star on Voyager 1's route is 40,000 years away. (The probes have enough power to keep key instruments running until 2020 for Voyager 2 and 2025 for Voyager 1.)

As much as the two Voyagers seem to be tethered still to familiar things, human imaginations are still connected to the Voyagers. The link is the golden record attached to each, etched with a compact rendering in images and sound of who and what we thought we were in 1977. The optimism of that gesture was part of that post-Star Trek era. Later came doubts about the wisdom of putting a return address on the bottle we cast into the uncaring stellar ocean.

If not Wednesday, them some day in the next six or seven years, NASA will confirm by faint signals from Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 that those hybrid parts of us have gone beyond any earthly influence and perhaps beyond imagining. Those who listen on Earth will note the passing of the Voyagers, but it will be our avatars that will slip the last bonds, out on their joy ride, freighted with our hopeful self-images.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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