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Voyager 1 now belongs to the stars

Saturday - 9/14/2013, 4:08pm  ET

WASHINGTON - "Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Voyager 1. Her continuing mission is to boldly go where no human has gone before."

To "Star Trek" fans these words will have a familiar ring. But instead of "Enterprise," we're talking about starship Voyager 1. That, my dear reader, is a historic substitution.

NASA officially announced Thursday, Sept. 12 that the 36-year-old Voyager 1 spacecraft had crossed into interstellar space on August 25, 2012. The delay in the announcement was due to the scientific process taking its time to gather, check and re-check data. I have little doubt that historians of science will be studying this watershed moment of human history in great detail.

This spaceflight first takes its place right next to Apollo 11's landing on the Moon in terms of historical significance, technical achievement and in my opinion, "wow factor." For Voyager 1 to operate in deep space for all of these years using 1960s and early 1970's technology, and for Earth to maintain two-way radio communications across nearly 12-billion miles of space - it takes 17 hours for Voyager 1's signal to reach us - is simply amazing.

And, when you really think about it, Voyager 1 is among the stars of our Milky Way Galaxy, having left the influence of our star, the Sun.

Some headlines indicate that Voyager 1 has left the solar system, but the NASA announcement was very precise in saying that it had entered interstellar space. Is there a difference? To me - and NASA - there is obviously a difference.

The distinction lies in how you define the solar system. This is not unlike the controversy as to whether Pluto is still a planet or a dwarf planet. If one considers the Sun and its family of planets, dwarf planets, asteroids and the physical bubble of its influence in space called the heliosphere to define the solar system, then Voyager 1 has indeed left.

But to NASA and others there is a segment of our solar system called the Oort Cloud, and it is located very far from the Sun and Voyager 1. The Oort Cloud is a vast sphere of billions, if not trillions, of comets surrounding the Sun that starts at about 5,000 Astronomical Units (AUs). An AU is the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun, or 93 million miles from the Sun.

You can get a good sense of scale and where starship Voyager 1 is located in the solar system by looking at this NASA diagram.

The debate can continue whether starship Voyager 1 has left the solar system or not - that is an earthly matter. What is absolutely clear is that our ambassador to the stars is out among them and will continue to be for eons to come. The nuclear fuel onboard our first starship will last until about 2020 and then instruments will have to be powered down. Ultimately, communications will be lost with starship Voyager 1.

Sister ship Voyager 2 will enter interstellar space at some point to become our second starship, perhaps in several years, as she is about 9.5 billion miles from the Sun.

No matter what happens to humanity, our calling cards to the Cosmos will roam among the stars. Perhaps, just perhaps, one of our starships will be found someday by intelligent beings who will take the golden record that is affixed to them and figure out the supplied directions on how to play it.

What will they think of us? I think they would have to admire our ability to send a craft, regardless of its level of sophistication as defined by their technology, out among the stars. They would likely marvel at the diversity of life and the sounds of our planet. They may wonder what became of us or if we will ever encounter each other, as we may be their first proof of another civilization or be just one among many.

A radio message was sent to starship Voyager 1 congratulating her on a job well done.

I'll be send this column to the stars and you can send something too. Send a video or Tweet to our starship via Twitter @NASAVoyager.

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