As Voyager 1 nears edge of solar system, a CU scientist look back

January 12, 2012

CU-Boulder planetary scientist Larry Esposito remembering the Voyager mission.

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CU-Boulder Scientist Reflects on Impact of Voyager Mission Decades Later

Jan. 12, 2012                                                              Larry Esposito

When the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft launched in 1977, they began a groundbreaking journey throughout the solar system. The mission had both spacecraft passing by Jupiter and Saturn while Voyager 2 went on to visit Uranus and Neptune.

CU Boulder Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics Professor Larry Esposito remembers when he first saw the pictures from the Voyager mission. He said he and the many other scientists working on Voyager where speechless.

CUT 1 “Just awestruck, out of breath, you couldn’t imagine that Saturn was like this, or Jupiter or Uranus or Neptune. (:07) And even all the studies we had done we’d been limited by never being there, so in space you go to the planet and we went to Saturn we discovered things we had never seen before.” (:17)

As a member of the LASP team, Esposito helped create the photopolarimeter -- a small telescope on the Voyager that measures light intensity and polarization. The device helped scientists determine the structure of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and how many rings surrounded Saturn.

CUT 2 “As we got closer to Saturn, everyday we’d discovered more rings. So one day there were 10, another day there were 100, then more than 1000. The number of rings now, it’s in the tens of thousands. (:10) The structure in Saturn’s rings is just not something you could count, we ran out of letters and numbers, and so just every day we got closer we saw more new things.” (:20)

In addition to collecting planetary data, Voyager also carries information describing Earth. If intelligent life captured the spacecraft, they could follow instructions to play a record of music and view pictures of Earth.

CUT 3 “It’s very unlikely that any intelligent civilization will intersect with the Voyager in the emptiness of space, on the other hand, it really says something about us. (:09) It says something that when we’re exploring the universe we’re also sending a message out to any other possible intelligence. And the message is about us, not just our science but our music and our greetings from the Earth.” (:22)

Voyager will continue to explore new frontiers as the spacecraft prepares to exit the solar system. Now, instead of planets, Voyager will view the interactions between the solar system and the universe.

CUT 4 “We planned to discover not only edge of the solar system, but how the winds from the other stars blow on our own solar system and how that interaction between our little neighborhood occurs with the rest of the Universe. Beyond that it’s hard to say what we’re going to discover.” (:14)

Voyager 1 is now sending data to Earth from over 11 billion miles away and NASA says it expects it to reach interstellar space in an undetermined time ranging from a few months to a few years.