Friday, April 08, 2005

8 April 2005: Voyager

Budget cuts are a part of life. But cutting off the Voyager probes is somehow morally wrong.

For 28 years, Voyagers 1 and 2 have been sliding out across the solar system, photographing planets and moons and, most recently, sending back data from the edge of the solar system that tells us it's a different place than we thought it might be.

Since Voyager 2 swung around Neptune and skimmed past Triton in 1989, the two probes have been on 'extra time' missions - measuring radiation, solar wind, interstellar effects using the tiniest amount of electricity (both probes have enough power to last until around 2020) and sending back data and photographs to NASA's small remaining team. There are no other probes anything like as far out as the Voyagers (Pioneer 10 died a couple of years ago), nor are there any plans to send any others. So why is the Bush administration wanting to scrap the project just as the probes are reaching one of the most fascinating places in the solar system: the Termination Shock, the place where the solar wind slows to subsonic speeds, heating up as its particles interact with the interstellar wind from outside the sun's influence? Voyager 1 is due to reach this spot sometime in 2006/07 where it will begin to be bombarded with particles from other stars - nothing like that has ever been measured or observed in human history.

Why? Because it costs $4.2 million per year to keep the project going.

Now, for something like my bank account, or even for something like AKT, that's a hefty sum. For the US Government it's nada. Or almost nada. Unfortunately, the 'Voyager Interstellar Mission' is regarded as one of the least important missions within NASA these days, and if President Bush cuts NASA's budget by a third and says "your priority is sending men to Mars, so spend the money on that", then what are they supposed to do?

Still, there's something in me that seems amazingly frustrated at the short-sightedness of this approach. We didn't expect this kind of opportunity from the Voyagers, so in that sense it's all a bonus -- but we're not going to get another chance to gather this data for perhaps decades to come, and somehow this proposed cut seems a colossal waste of opportunity. I, and many others, routinely check JPL's Voyager pages every month or to see if there's anything happening, and quite often it seems there is. Cut it off for the sake of $4.2 million?

One correspondent on the relevant Slashdot conversation puts it in perspective:
"By my calculations at $166 million a day to be in Iraq, the US government could save the Voyager's first year's $4.2 million by leaving Iraq 39 minutes early. That seems reasonable." And in many ways, all Voyager 1 needs is another couple of years (at most) to reach the termination shock.

Perhaps Harry should buy Voyager for Saints? $4.2m is about half of what we paid for Rory Delap, and when was the last time he told us anything about the interstellar wind?

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