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Entry 823, on 2008-07-30 at 21:01:57 (Rating 1, Science)
I listened to another Nature podcast today which briefly mentioned one of NASA's greatest missions which was launched over 30 years ago. That was Voyager II, which was quickly followed by Voyager I. Two was launched before 1 because it took a faster path and reached its destination first. Now the Voyagers are the most distant man-made objects from Earth. They are currently at a distance of almost 13 billion kilometers and that distance increases by 500 million kilometers every year.
Even after 30 years the spacecraft are still operating and their nuclear generators are still producing power and they are expected to run for more than another 15 years. Although various systems have failed over the years since launch they are still producing useful results and 6 papers have been published based on the latest results. The space age itself is only 50 years old and these missions have been active for well over half that time and could have a total life of 48 years.
When they were first launched the missions were primarily intended to explore Jupiter and Saturn but they were extended to Uranus and Neptune (for Voyager II) and now the outer Solar System (for both). The spacecraft are now twice the distance of Pluto from the Sun which is an awesome achievement. The photos sent back from the planets were brilliant (although later missions have got even better ones) and I remember at the time (when I was really into astronomy) showing slides of them to the public groups I was teaching.
So I think if I was listing the human race's greatest achievements I would list the Voyager missions amongst them. They have shown how good, reliable engineering and brilliant mission control can lead to an outcome well beyond the most optimistic original expectations.
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