Voyager 1: Still making breakthroughs in deep space

Voyager 1: Still making breakthroughs in deep space

An out-of-the-world achievement by American space probe Voyager 1 recently flew by without getting too much play in the media.

A pity, for the spacecraft - which has been a trailblazer in the coldest and darkest outer space since blasting off on Sept 5, 1977 - has become the first man-made object to exit the solar system.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) which launched Voyager 1, the boundary of the solar system marks how far plasma, or ionised gas, radiates from the Sun.

It has taken 35 years for the probe - now 18.7 billion kilometres from the Sun (Earth is 150 million km away from the sun in contrast) - to breach that boundary and cross over into what scientists call interstellar space.

This extraordinary breakthrough happened last year but it was only recently that Nasa could confirm it.

I wish the media had given more coverage to this momentous event because in an age where nothing much is unknown thanks to a swift search on Google, there remains the vast, mysterious outer space - and Voyager 1 is the small, can-do machine out there expanding mankind's horizons and scientific knowledge.

And in an age when even a sports event like the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia is projected to cost a mind-numbing US$50 billion (S$62.7 billion), it is uplifting to note that Voyager 1 has unearthed so much for comparatively so little.

The total cost of the Voyager programme - a sister probe Voyager 2 was launched also in 1977 but has a different flight path - is still less than US$1 billion, less than the combined budgets of several bloated Hollywood sci-fi movies.

Voyager 1 - about the size of a car - relies on old-world technology such as an eight-track tape-recording system.

Its computing power - gasp! - is less than that of a low-end iPhone.

But Voyager 1 punches above its weight and remains a paragon of productivity after 36 years of space trekking.

In its earlier assignments, it transmitted back stunning images and data of the big planets such as Saturn and Jupiter.

It discovered that Jupiter's moon Io has an active volcano, joining Earth as the only other body in the solar system with such a feature.

It also found out that Jupiter has rings albeit simpler and less noticeable than those of Saturn.

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