Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Voyager 1 mission: A new frontier in quest to understand the cosmos

Mission's godfatherIn a small room at Caltech, space physicist Ed Stone and four of his colleagues puzzle over a trove of data that has just arrived from the bulbous edge of the solar system.

"What, exactly, are we looking at?" Stone asks.

The data form a map of invisible matter, a slush of atomic particles once part of stars that exploded around 10 million years ago. The information has come from Voyager 1, the spindly little spacecraft that rocketed from Florida more than 30 years before and is still traveling, farther from Earth than any human-made object ever has.

Stone and his associates are stumped. "What are we going to find?" Stone wonders. "Right now, I don't think anybody knows."

The godfather of the interstellar mission called Voyager is now 75. He is rail thin, and his shoulders have a faint slope. A crown of gray hair circles the top of his otherwise bald head. He is wearing his standard work attire: gray sport jacket, gray pants, gray shoes, gray socks — and a white shirt.

Despite his uncertainty, his voice is calm. "Eventually," he assures the others, "we're going to figure this out."

Stone is agnostic about God, but has a belief that knowing about the cosmos brings deeper understanding of Earth. Although he and the other scientists might not comprehend Voyager's observations right now, experience tells him their meanings will be divined.

He also believes they will learn much more. Voyager 1 is close to bursting out of the solar system. Once it makes it beyond the influence of the sun, the spacecraft will enter part of the universe that scientists have only been able speculate about: Deep space.

"We're very, very close," Stone says, after the meeting with his collaborators. "We can't say for sure how long it is going to take to get there. My best guess is four years, maybe five."

That would make him 79 or 80. Projections have fallen short at times during this mission. Deep space still might be a decade away.

"Will I be around when Voyager finally makes it?" Stone draws a breath. For a moment, he is silent. ...

What he lacks in zippy personality, his colleagues say, he makes up for by usually being the smartest — and most humble — person in the room. Few, if anyone, can recall him losing his cool or even being mildly dejected. "He is a leader regarded as above the fray," says science writer Timothy Ferris, who helped Sagan create the Voyager discs.

"Stone is pretty much universally admired, and that is very unusual for someone in his position."

In 2001, at age 65, Stone retired from JPL and returned to Caltech to teach physics. By then, much of the machinery on the Voyagers had been shuttered to save power for the final push. Their next important discoveries would come only as they began escaping the solar system.

Science has created models of deep space, but no one can say for sure what it is like — its temperatures, its composition or the speed of its interstellar wind. Most important, no one knows exactly how deep space relates to the formation of Earth.

Stone, still the lead scientist, oversees a slimmed-down Voyager team — about 20 researchers who must find time for the mission among their other projects. Some are at Caltech and JPL, others at universities and laboratories scattered across the country.

They follow the probes, especially Voyager 1, with mounting interest. Running on dwindling plutonium, using antiquated computers and recording data on eight-track tapes that get sent to Earth on faint radio waves, Voyager 2 races through space about 9 billion miles away and Voyager 1, 11 billion.

If it reaches deep space, scientists will ask Voyager 1 to perform one more great task before it runs out of power, to use a collection of measuring devices, including one known as a cosmic-ray spectrometer, which Stone helped design, to gather information and send it back to Earth. Humans then will have their first definitive look at the great beyond. ....

via Voyager 1 mission: A new frontier in quest to understand the cosmos - latimes.com.

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