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[EAS] The Voyager Mission

Subject: [EAS] The Voyager Mission
From: "Peter J. Kindlmann"
Date: Sat, 11 Jun 2011 00:35:57 -0400
Dear Friends & Colleagues -

Yesterday's BBC News <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12688246> reminded my of the Voyager mission, two deep space probes launched in 1977. Here, among much material you can easily find for yourself, is a 2003 story from NASA <http://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/solarsystem/voyager_heliosphere.html>. And of course there is always <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyager_program>.
Voyager 1 is now 17.4 billion km (10.9 billion miles) from us, communications with it take 16 hours one way. It has reached the edge of the solar system in that it is at a distance where the solar wind velocity is zero. Along the way it brought us those spectacular pictures of planetary details of Mars, Neptune and Saturn and immense amount of scientific data.

These days it is hard to evoke a "sense of wonder." The technological complexity around us has mostly gone from wondrous to numbing. The Voyager mission, with much simpler electronics, has lasted 33 years in outer space and is still working fine. It is being manoeuvred to properly orient its Low Energy Charged Particle (LECP) instrument. To quote the BBC item:

"On Monday this week Voyager rolled 70 degrees anticlockwise as seen from Earth from its normal orientation. It held the position by spinning gyroscopes for two hours, 33 minutes. The veteran last performed such a manoeuvre in 1990 when it took pictures of the planets it was leaving behind.
Once complete, Voyager rolled back and locked on to its guide star, Alpha Centauri.
Voyager 1 will do more roll-and-holds this week, and if the spacecraft continues to function well it will execute a series of weekly rolls to gather particle data every three months."

All in response to commands that take 16 hours to reach it, and that it can still receive. To me, that's pretty wondrous.

Do you own anything technological that's been working for 33 years?  There may be a few things you owned that _could_ have lasted that long, but have long ago become technologically obsolescent. To be sure, much infrastructure like that of electrification, works on that, and longer, time scales. It's too big and expensive to tinker with frequently.

Medicine is making us live longer, but we are surrounding ourselves with much technology bred to have the longevity of fruit flies. Yes, I know, it's has become an economic imperative, but when I'm reminded by Voyager of an utterly different scale of technological longevity combined with such enduring usefulness, it does make me wonder if our equation between design and purpose in technology hasn't gotten quite flimsy. (One of my good friends would remind me that it's a three-way equation between design, purpose, and excellence.)

Only in science fiction do we seem to have enough sense of purpose to not redecorate our lives with new technology quite so frequently. The record for long-lasting technology is probably held by Marvin, the robot in Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." According to Marvin, "The first ten million years were the worst, and the second ten million years, they were the worst too. The third ten million I didn't enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline." Apparently, the best conversation he'd had was over 40 million years ago, and that was with a coffee machine.

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