August 31, 2005

Termination Shock: Voyager Funding To Be Cut, Probe to be Shut Down

From the Washington Post: In a cost-cutting move prompted by President Bush's moon-Mars initiative, NASA could summarily put an end to Voyager, the legendary 28-year mission that has sent a spacecraft farther from Earth than any object ever made by humans.

The probable October shutdown of a program that currently costs $4.2 million a year has caused consternation among scientists who have shepherded the twin Voyager probes on flybys of four planets and an epic journey to the frontier of interstellar space.

"There are no other plans to reach the edge of the solar system," said Stamatios Krimigis, a lead investigator for the project since before its launch in 1977. "Now we're getting all this new information, and here comes NASA saying, 'We want to pull the plug.' "

...The impulse for Voyager arose in the early 1970s because of space geometry, Krimigis said in a telephone interview. Every 175 years, the solar system's four major outer planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune -- are aligned in a way that one spacecraft can pass close to all four without carrying extra propellant.

From Some scientists -- including Voyagers' own -- were incredulous on hearing the news. "At first, I thought it must be a misunderstanding, because it couldn't possibly be true," Stamatios M. (Tom) Krimigis, principal investigator on the low energy charged particle instrument on board both spacecraft told The Planetary Society in an interview last week. "We're leaving the neighborhood, and Voyager is the first and only human-made object to cross this boundary. It's like Columbus seeing the shores of America and saying, 'Well, time to turn around and go home.'

Termination shock.

That'a what I've been experiencing in the wake of these recent developments. This fully reveals me as the giant nerd that I am, but truly, I have been very saddened by the news that ill-considered budget cuts may well prompt NASA to abandon a project which has been successfully returning useful and unique data back to earth since before I could brush my own teeth.

I've been reading and pondering and dreaming about this little spacecraft for years, and it's like this "redeem in 20 years" gift card of amazing ideas and discoveries I've been counting on for a long time. It is literally like a religious symbol in my mind, in terms of the awe it invokes. Like the powerful Catholic symbolism of my childhood, images of Voyager evoke a sense of pure, unspoiled wonder that I hope to keep hold of all of my life.

Shut it down? It's a mechanical witness still flying, eyes wide open, past the border of our solar system. A surrogate for human explorers, entering entirely unknown regions of space, still functioning. Still transmitting data. Encountering things outside our imaginations. Offering us a chance to have knowledge of things well outside our own collective human experience. Does that mean nothing? Is that not worth what amounts to a tiny fraction of a government's budget? $4.2 million a year to keep it going. Private citizens could afford that! It's absurd.

NASA's page about Voyager's adventures at the edge of the solar system.

Technical descriptions of Voyager at

A thread on the subject at Uplink, a space science message board.

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