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Voyager 1 presses on with 1970s technology

By From page A10 | September 18, 2013

The issue: Space probe has boldly gone where no man has gone before

NASA has confirmed that its space probe Voyager 1, after a 36-year, 11.5-billion-mile journey, has become the first manmade object to leave our solar system and enter the cold and immense void of what is truly outer space.

VOYAGER ACTUALLY passed that milestone in August 2012, but NASA wanted to confirm and reconfirm that Voyager, by now a technological antique, had clearly broken out of the plasma bubble that surrounds our little gaggle of planets and truly was in interstellar space.

Voyage 1’s primary mission was a photographic and scientific fly-by of Jupiter and Saturn (its sister ship, Voyager 2, was assigned to examine Uranus and Neptune). If the probe still was functioning, it was to go on to Pluto, which it did.

In 1990, the probe was told to quit sending back pictures, in part to save energy but mostly because it was so far out there was nothing left to photograph. Voyager is still sending back data, but it now takes 17 hours and 22 minutes for the signals to reach NASA’s lab in Pasadena.

Voyager was launched in 1977 — the same year the first “Star Wars” was released, space buffs like to point out — and still relies on 1970s technology. Voyager carries an eight-track tape recorder to store its data, has a computer that The New York Times calculates has a fraction of the memory of a low-end iPhone and sends data using a 23-watt transmitter, which the Times compares to a refrigerator light bulb.

When the eight-track recorder began running out of storage space, NASA’s young programmers were accustomed to working with virtually unlimited storage capacity. The solution was to bring out of retirement 77-year-old NASA engineer Lawrence Zottarelli, who had worked with the eight-track units. The team successfully fed data into two computers made by a company that was merged out of existence three years ago.

WHEN NASA made its announcement to the small Voyager support staff, the agency played the theme from “Star Trek” with its voiceover directive “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

And that mission involves its next space rendezvous with a dwarf star in the constellation Camelopardalis — in 40,000 years. But the precedent-setting probe had better hurry. Voyager 2 is only about three years behind it in hitting interstellar space.

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