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NASA Space

Voyager Set To Enter Interstellar Space 362

Posted by timothy
from the ok-but-you're-still-in-my-comfort-zone dept.
Phoghat writes "More than 30 years after they were launched, NASA's two Voyager probes have traveled to the edge of the solar system and are on the doorstep of interstellar space. Today, April 28, 2011, NASA held a live briefing to reflect on what the Voyager mission has accomplished — and to preview what lies ahead as the probes prepare to enter the realm of the Milky Way itself."
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Voyager Set To Enter Interstellar Space

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  • Let me say (Score:5, Insightful)

    by milbournosphere (1273186) on Thursday April 28, 2011 @08:42PM (#35970714)
    Congratulations to the engineers working on the original project all those years ago. I couldn't fathom designing something like this with the toolset they had 30+ years ago. Props to them for creating a set of probes that are still relevant 30 years after their launch.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      An example of reliable code and engineering.

      It is a shame that programmers and engineers do not design and code their products so that they will be reliable.

      How many times did they have to reboot Voyager?

      • Re:Let me say (Score:5, Informative)

        by slew (2918) on Thursday April 28, 2011 @09:34PM (#35971000)

        How many times did they have to reboot Voyager?

        In case you didn't know, it wasn't a reboot, but there was a problem where they actually did have to live patch the voyager 2 computer [nasa.gov] last year for a bit-flip problem...

        Of course this was discussed previously [slashdot.org]

        Although that's impressive, in general, the SW architecture of voyager is quite complicated and fragile, and during the operation, several mistakes have been made one of which caused the primary receiver on Voyager 2 to be accidently shut down, never to work again (so it's relying on a backup which has a faultly frequency tuning circuit which they compensate in software).

        It's really only heroics which keep these probes up and running. The original engineering, while impressive, is really not the thing that's keeping things working now...

        • Yet ... to get philosophical, achieving true longevity in a design isn't simple, is it? Is it luck? Brilliance? Trial and error?

          My point is that the fact that the thing is still on at all deserves quite a lot of credit to the original engineering. Even if it is fragile and has required work to keep going - it is still ... on.

          Who deserves more credit? The guys that have figured out the system updates and changes to KEEP it going, or the people that designed the thing so well in the first place that it ha
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by dissy (172727)

        It is a shame that programmers and engineers do not design and code their products so that they will be reliable.

        But on the other hand, I can't say I am willing to pay $2 million for a copy of Windows, which is likely the cost per user if it really was designed by the same people and to the same standards as the Voyager code.

        It's not cheap to design and develop bug free code. NASA had some very smart people working on these problems for quite some time.

        Granted, there are plenty of areas outside of commercial software like Word, where reliability is not just important but critical. While a good amount is designed wel

        • by Mogusha (1091607)
          Would probably be even more expensive given the number of features implemented in Windows.
          The voyager probe code was most likely entirely purpose written, which is much easier to manage than something like windows which is designed for third party programs and tries to allow for general purpose computing.
          Although, there are a few things that could be done to improve some reliability, even in old c++. Although I'm sure there might be difficulties with platforms other than x86. Like using -1 instead of 1
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          A friend of mine led the development team that built the onboard software for the Huygens probe. The QA cycles they went through would be insane for any normal project.

          For example they gave the compiled code to a completely separate team and got them to reverse engineer the specifications.

          This uncovered a Y2K bug in the ADA runtime that the code was built on

          As the test driven development mantra goes - test until you aren't scared any more
          Knowing that your code will be run once and only once in production
      • Re:Let me say (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Nursie (632944) on Thursday April 28, 2011 @10:34PM (#35971318)

        "It is a shame that programmers and engineers do not design and code their products so that they will be reliable."

        Speak for yourself.

        Some of us take pride in our work and write fast, reliable software that runs on servers for multiple years without interference.

      • Re:Let me say (Score:4, Interesting)

        by sjames (1099) on Friday April 29, 2011 @04:50AM (#35972658) Homepage

        It all comes down to money. If you outsource your development to the lowest bidder and even try to beat a few more pennies out of their offer, you'll get a steaming pile. If you keep screaming "more coding faster!", you'll get a big steaming pile. Chase your best and brightest away with poor management and crazy bureaucratic proceduralism and you'll be lucky if the code is decentish.

        If you willingly spend $100/line of code and ASK when it will be done rather than TELLING when it will be done, it'll be near bulletproof.

    • Re:Let me say (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Pseudonym Authority (1591027) <SammyKake@@@gmail...com> on Thursday April 28, 2011 @08:59PM (#35970796)
      It may have been a less advanced toolset, but the mindset back them was what really made it work. Back then, anything was possible, even expensive research unlikely to have any direct benifits. Now? If it isn't going to make a profit next month, trash it. Fuck the modern era. We did more with slide rules and determination than we do now with modern technology.
      • by md65536 (670240) on Thursday April 28, 2011 @09:16PM (#35970898)

        But the modern version would automatically update its Twitter account from space!

      • You have a decent point, but a very important, unmoveable deadline also kept the engineers on track: the alignment of the outer planets imposed a certain launch window.
      • by schnell (163007)

        the mindset back them was what really made it work. Back then, anything was possible, even expensive research unlikely to have any direct benefits.

        I think what you really mean is that the Cold War funding climate made it possible for politicians to vote to fund those things. Today, with Moody's on the threshold of downgrading US credit, nearly every state running massive deficits and every penny of the Federal budget being fought over, you're damn right that no politician in the US is eager to fund "expensive research unlikely to have any direct benefits." And frankly that may not be a bad thing. Maybe one of those other countries that I keep hear is

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        It may have been a less advanced toolset, but the mindset back them was what really made it work. Back then, anything was possible, even expensive research unlikely to have any direct benifits. Now? If it isn't going to make a profit next month, trash it. Fuck the modern era. We did more with slide rules and determination than we do now with modern technology.

        Nope re the mindset back then. I was coding for living back then and the ratio of good developers to bad developers is still pretty much the same now. Go and read the Mythical Man Month. What's sad is not that 'we were better at this stuff in the good old days' but that we, as an industry, haven't learned how to do things better having had 30 years of practice.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 28, 2011 @09:03PM (#35970820)
      You know, they weren't club-wielding savages in loincloths back then.The most important tools they had back then were:

      1) A university system that wasn't designed to maximize profit therefore bringing in anyone into EE. Only actual engineers made it back then. The engineer working on the other system wasn't a dumbass.

      2) Computers and software were simpler and easier to understand instead of the morass of chaotic, barely-functioning layers of unknown code we have today.

      3) They had SPICE back then!

      4) Plenty enough technology to do what was needed.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        And as we all know, spice is an important part of space travel.

        • The gold phonograph contains a recording of the brain waves of a young woman in love.
          • I was lucky to find a copy of Carl Sagan's book Murmurs of Earth in my local library years ago. It is a fantastic read and I would recommend it to anybody.

      • by slapout (93640)

        And slide rules! Don't forget the slide rules.

        • by PPH (736903)

          And slide rules! Don't forget the slide rules.

          I won't. I was sitting in the coffee shop, figuring some stuff out with one just the other day.

      • They also loved in an age where beating the Soviets in science and technology was considered more important than building the next iDink consumer device, or concocting some alchemical algorithm for market traders.

        The best talent available to us is being wasted on pointless commercialism.

      • You know, they weren't club-wielding savages in loincloths back then.

        Stone knives and bearskins, son, stone knives and bearskins. And that's the way we liked it, too! None of this mamby-pamby object-oriented whoopsiedoodle; we entered our code changes by tapping out ones and zeros under a microscope (optical, of course, you insensitive clod!) using a cat's whisker. Why, I'd give you a real old-school lesson in how-to-get-it-done-and-done-right-the-first-time-ness, but I've gotta go chase some darned kids outta my yard!!

        • by nanospook (521118)
          You had a keyboard? We didn't have one, we just tapped the two wires together in morse code to control the keypuncher monkey thing..
        • we entered our code changes by tapping out ones and zeros under a microscope (optical, of course, you insensitive clod!) using a cat's whisker

          You had cats?

          • by sznupi (719324)
            In my times, the cats didn't domesticate humans yet - so we had to scavenge whiskers in the dens/etc. of the beats, with great risk to life... and many sacrifices.
      • by Nyeerrmm (940927)
        If you're referring to the SPICE toolkit, we're even still using it.
      • When I was a Boy by Frank Hayes:
        Videos:
        Faster Paced: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnUFfy9ZhoE [youtube.com]
        Really Slow Paced: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1fBd7UbQPA [youtube.com]

        Lyrics:
        http://www.stevemacdonald.org/lyrics/wiwab.html [stevemacdonald.org]

        When I was a boy our Nintendo
        Was carved from an old Apple tree
        And we used garden hose to connect it
        To our steam-powered color tv.

        But it still beat that ancient Atari
        'Cuz I almost went blind, don'tcha know,
        Playing Breakout and Pong on a video game
        Hooked up to the radio.

        And we walked twenty miles to t

      • by roman_mir (125474)

        A university system that wasn't designed to maximize profit

        - false. The university system was always designed to maximize profits. What they did not have was government giving loans left right and center, thus increasing the demand in nominal terms, while destroying the currency and forcing tuition fees up, while simultaneously driving savings and thus the investment capital out to other places, that wanted that capital more and weren't punishing people for success in business. The only driving force behind innovation is need that comes out of the market and caus

    • Re:Let me say (Score:4, Informative)

      by FlyingGuy (989135) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {yuggniylf}> on Thursday April 28, 2011 @09:18PM (#35970914)

      More then likely written in pure Assembler or Machine Code. Hand Debugged, Hand Optimized back when software engineers were programmers in the very real sense of the word.

      Although unconfirmed AFAIK the whole thing is run on a RCA CDP1802, also known as the COSMAC (Complementary Symmetry Monolithic Array Computer) [wikipedia.org] and at this moment the entire spacecraft runs on +/- 275 watts of power at 30 Volts DC which is pretty damn amazing.

      Put that in your god damn JVM/Python/PHP/Erlang/Lang De Jur pipe and smoke it ya damn weenies!

      • Wow, 275 watts of power FOR THIRTY YEARS (actually I think it was substantially higher at the beginning, exponential decay and everything).

        This is in a device with no moving parts, about the size of a microwave oven (I think, but maybe that's just one of them), able to operate in interstellar cold and Jupiter's radiation belts, not to mention the vibration and acceleration of liftoff. Oh, and it has to survive an explosion on the pad or accidental re-entry!

        If these things were cheap enough, we could use th

    • I am not quite sure what you are talking about in terms of "toolset they had 30 years ago". There have been relatively few relevant improvements since then. The only thing that is better is computer processing power, and that is very much a mixed blessing.

    • Re:Let me say (Score:5, Informative)

      by stuckinarut (891702) on Thursday April 28, 2011 @10:01PM (#35971122)
      Genuinely a brilliant lifetimes work, here's a nice write up by the LA Times on Ed Stone the Voyager lead scientist [latimes.com].
  • I saw it on Star Trek, TMP!
    • by syousef (465911)

      I saw it on Star Trek, TMP!

      ...and as long as it stays on Star Trek and doesn't move to "Voyager: Excrement my dad says", it'll be just fine!

  • won't fly forever (Score:5, Interesting)

    by melikamp (631205) on Thursday April 28, 2011 @09:07PM (#35970846) Homepage Journal
    I bet Voyagers won't fly forever. When space travel become cheap and safe enough, they will be seen as collectible items, and will be recovered. The two golden records will probably become the most expensive records money can buy.
    • Only if the RIAA claims they own the copyright to them... and we know they will
      • by iluvcapra (782887)

        Several of the compositions on the record are protected by master rights and were licensed specifically for the record, which is why you can't buy a CD of the Voyager Golden Record -- the recordings aren't licensed for sale.

        RIAA doesn't own the copyright to any music.

    • When space travel become cheap and safe enough, they will be seen as collectible items, and will be recovered.

      I kind of have my doubts that it's ever going to be cheap to get out to where they are. Even if we reach the point (and I sincerely hope we do) where we're zipping around the inner planets the way we currently fly around the world, catching up with the Voyagers would be on a whole different order of difficulty. And the longer it takes us to to develop the technology, the farther away they get ...

  • by chowdahhead (1618447) on Thursday April 28, 2011 @09:11PM (#35970870)
    They have a long way to go until they leave the Kuiper Belt and really reach the edge of our solar system, but impressive none the less.
    • Re:not yet (Score:5, Informative)

      by Jeremy Erwin (2054) on Thursday April 28, 2011 @09:50PM (#35971046) Journal

      You're probably thinking of the Oort Cloud.

      From the wikipedia [wikipedia.org]

      In August 2009, Voyager 1 was over 16.5 terameters (16.5×1012 meters, or 16.5×109 km, 110.7 AU, or 10.2 billion miles) from the Sun, and thus had entered the heliosheath region between solar wind's termination shock and the heliopause (the limit of the solar wind). Beyond heliopause is the bow shock of the interstellar medium, beyond which is interstellar space, a vast area where the Sun's influence gives way to that of the Milky Way galaxy in general. At this distance, light from the Sun takes over 16 hours to reach the probe.

      The Kuiper belt [wikipedia.org] extends from 30 AU to 55 AU.

    • by jd (1658)

      The end of the heliopause is sometimes considered the end of the solar system. Any Kuiper Belt or Oort Cloud objects further out are blasted by the galactic winds at that point, they experience nothing from the solar system bar gravity and even Alpha Centauri experiences that.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by iluvcapra (782887)

      Every two years or so Voyager \d crosses the (heliosheath | heliopause | bow shock | edge of the cosmic wind | edge of the Oort cloud | ... ) and this arbitrary boundary is used as a pretext to run off a press release.

  • for a LONG LONG time.
    • by jd (1658)

      I don't know about "nothing" - we have zero knowledge of the galactic winds. We can't even be sure that the probes won't hit a glass dome.

      • We can't even be sure that the probes won't hit a glass dome.

        Maybe they already did a long time ago and the "Voyager Anomaly" is just a floating-point-error in the Matrix...

  • Can anyone do the math as to how long it will take the probe to reach it's next solar system? I realize the amount of time will be insane and the probe will be most likely (read definitely) dead by then but still it's interesting.
    • Relevant Wikipedia text for Voyager 1, the farther and faster of the two (taken from here [wikipedia.org]):

      As of April 21, 2011, Voyager 1 was about 116.825 AU, or about 10,843,294,886 miles or about 0.00183 of a light-year from the Sun. [...] Voyager 1's current relative velocity to the sun is 17.061 km/s, or 61,452 kilometres per hour (38,185 mph). This calculates as 3.599 AU per year, about 10% faster than Voyager 2. At this velocity, 73,600 years would pass before reaching the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, were the spacecraft traveling in the direction of that star. [...]

      Voyager 1 is not heading towards any particular star, but in about 40,000 years it will pass within 1.6 light years of the star AC+79 3888 in the constellation Camelopardalis. That star is generally moving towards our Solar System at about 119 kilometers per second.

      You might want to take that with a grain of salt, though, since there's an incorrect calculation in part of the paragraph I didn't quote and 11 significant figures is very suspiciously precise in the miles figure. Also, the 73,600 figure doesn't agree with my own calculations in the hundreds place. But I imagine what I quoted is pretty close to the truth.

      • by Dyinobal (1427207)
        I've found that most people can't grasp how big space is. I can on a intellectual level but most people don't seem to understand just how distance even the closest stars are. I've met a few who thought a lightyear was the distance it took up to travel in a year in a modern space shuttle. But wow Voyager is going itno the black, I hope it doesn't turn into a Reaver.
        • "Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space." -- D. Adams, HGTG
        • Yes, our smallness is astonishing. The relative difference in scale going from pencils to atoms is dwarfed by the relative difference in scale going from light-years to pencils. Very roughly, going from the size of a galaxy to the size of a person is comparable to going from the size of a person to the atomic scale twice. On the scale of galaxies, each person is an atom's atom.
        • I've found that most people can't grasp how big space is. I can on a intellectual level but most people don't seem to understand just how distance even the closest stars are. I've met a few who thought a lightyear was the distance it took up to travel in a year in a modern space shuttle. But wow Voyager is going itno the black, I hope it doesn't turn into a Reaver.

          Indeed. I always felt like I kind of "got it" on an intellectual level of matching big numbers to huge differences. But I realized that I didn't really get it until I started playing with Celestia [shatters.net], a free space simulator that lets you move around the universe using actual astronomical data. Everything is to scale in that program, and it really does give you a feel for just how big and empty space really is.

          I highly recommend playing with it, for anyone who really wants to try to grasp the hugeness of space.

      • by jd (1658)

        It does, however, assume no significant transfer of momentum from the galactic winds to the probe, even over a 40,000 year period. I've a real hard time with that, but sadly I can't find any cryogenics facility with a 40,000 year warranty. Even then, posting the results on Slashdot might be difficult.

        • The source of the 40,000 figure is here [nasa.gov], which is at least hosted on jpl.nasa.gov. I was hoping an author careful enough to include star movement was careful enough to include whatever other relevant effects may exist. You mentioned momentum transfer. Off the top of my head, there may also be electrostatic effects, gravitational fields, or a particle field drifting in some direction which may or may not modify the calculation significantly.
      • by jrumney (197329)
        What is interesting about this, is that although Proxima Centauri is currently the nearest star, there are other stars that will be closer within the timeframe it would take to travel there. I'm not a astronomer, so I had no idea that the Milky Way was changing so quickly (40,000 years seems a short time to me on an interstellar scale).
    • Can anyone do the math as to how long it will take the probe to reach it's next solar system? I realize the amount of time will be insane and the probe will be most likely (read definitely) dead by then but still it's interesting.

      At its current speed, it would take tens of thousands of years to get to the nearest star. But since it's not aimed at any particular star, it would probably take many millions of years before it actually enters another solar system by chance.

      I assume that the probe will gradually be eroded away over millions of years by interstellar dust, gas and radiation. I've never seen an estimate of how long it will remain recognizable, though. I wonder if it will actually ever reach another star system while it still

    • by bhagwad (1426855)
      I wonder - 4 billion years later when (if?) our sun explodes, will it be far away enough to escape being destroyed? If so, it might be the only remnants of earth/humanity ever left.
  • by Slutticus (1237534) on Thursday April 28, 2011 @09:53PM (#35971068)
    The Voyager probes are approximately three months younger than me. All my life, I have followed the magical images and data these probes have been sending back to earth. In fact, it was the first images of saturn and jupiter that inspired me to be a scientist. It wasn't the pharma industry in which I work now. It wasn't the lure (lie?) of riches received for making the next big discovery. It was those probes, hurling through space sending back the most fascinating shit my young mind had ever witnessed. I spent almost my entire youth with my head buried in encyclopedias and books about astronomy, all made possible by Voyager 1 and 2. In the end I chose a different science path, but who knows...I could have ended up being a financial analyst (**shudders**)
  • I'm glad they didn't decide to record the brain waves of a young *man* in love... those would certainly make the aliens skeptical about ever visiting us.

    "What did we learn from this Golden Record?"
    "From what we can tell, we're dealing with a race that can't concentrate, constantly listens to The Smiths, worries about its hair looking right, broods pensively throughout the day, and fears never knowing the right things to say."
    "On second thought, let's head out to Ursa Minor and see if we can find any intelli

    • And you somehow think that the thoughts and feelings of a woman in love are more rational? Oh young one, the things you have to learn.
  • So this is our last chance to tell it not to come back [wikipedia.org], saving future generations a lot of trouble and past generations from a mediocre movie.
  • How Long ? (Score:5, Informative)

    by mbone (558574) on Thursday April 28, 2011 @10:07PM (#35971164)

    It's not aimed at any other solar system, and the times involved are such that we can't predict what's going to happen very well.

    In places like Wikipedia [wikipedia.org] you will read things like

    "in about 40,000 years [Voyager 1] will pass within 1.6 light years of the star AC+79 3888 in the constellation Camelopardalis."

    but this is highly misleading. 1.6 light years is almost 1000 times further away from that star than either Voyager is from the Sun right now, so it won't in any sense be "in" that stellar system.

    Worse, stars travel (relative to each other) at ~ 0.001 c, so even in 40,000 years all the nearby stars will move around by 10's of light years. We can estimate stellar velocities reasonably well, but their accelerations are very poorly measured, and so, after a few million years at most, we really don't know which star will go where.

    The bottom line is, it will be millions of years before any of these spacecraft get as close to another star as they are now, and we have no idea which star that will be... ... unless, of course, our descendants pick them up and put them in a museum somewhere, which is what I would predict.

  • And the response from the rest of the galaxy is...that Earth is slapped with a littering charge and told to go out there and collect their refuse. Ignorance of intergalactic law is no excuse.
  • Am I the only person who read this, then remembering the decision of how to store the retiring shuttles, put two and two together? Perhaps even with one or more volunteers traveling some initial portion of the final leg, perhaps aimed for a swing around mars and a cargo bay full of food and water? Seriously??

    • It would be like driving a flat water fishing boat across the Atlantic ocean. The shuttles are highly specialised vehicles designed for low earth orbit, and nothing else. Apollo on the other hand...

  • How long will it take the inter stellar dust to sand blast these probes down to nothing?

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