Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Unreasonable Unknown

Is such a voyage unreasonable?
Artist's depiction of the Voyager spacecraft.
In late August 2012, after 35 years of travelling through space, NASA's veteran spacecraft Voyager 1 opened a new chapter in our species' long story of exploration by crossing and consequently mapping what is believed to mark the end of the sun's sphere of magnetic influence; the heliopause for the first time.

However, due to the unknown nature of the region the spacecraft is surveying, it took the mission team almost a year since seeing the first suggestive signs of the crossing to study the data before they could confidently announce to the public that the humanity has now become an interstellar faring race. Undoubtedly, this is a remarkable achievement and event not just because we have proven that it is possible to send a craft to the distant reaches of our sun's domain but because it awakens that deep sense of the unknown inside all of us. Whenever we progress into unfamiliar territory, be it worlds, continents, life stages or situations, there is that deep, exotic feeling that one gets; a mixture of hope, awe and apprehension. We have reached the edge of what we know, now we venture into unchartered waters.

This drive to reach the edge of knowledge, for good or for ill, drove a lot humanity's doings; from the discovery of the New World by the Europeans to the exploration of the Inner Space under the seas to the venturing of humans and mechanic emissaries into space to our peering into the distances of the sky to fathom the heavenly domains. What we gain from doing all this is nothing short of meaningful progress. The very same progress that has allowed us to tame nature (somewhat) and allow us and our children to thrive and live more comfortably. As the famous playwright and political activist George Bernard Shaw once put so eloquently, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him... The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself... All progress depends on the unreasonable man". The Voyager mission, itself an unreasonable mission, is truly a work of unreasonable people!

So, we are left with the question; do we owe our comfort today to the people who accepted things as the will of the universe/deities or to the people who went about asking seemingly unreasonable questions, and then ventured out to the edge of the known to find the answer? I believe the answer goes without saying.

Meanwhile, Voyager 1 will continue gathering data on this unexplored region of sun's domain (it can still be regarded as the being the sun's domain despite the crossing because the sun's gravitational influence extends farther outwards, up until the Oort cloud where the majority of our solar system's cometary bodies reside; Voyager has yet to leave that area of influence as illustrated below) until its radioisotope thermoelectric generator stops producing power somewhere in the mid 2020s. From then on, she continue drifting further from us, a silent emissary to the stars.

Learn more about Voyager 1 and her sister craft Voyager 2 here.
Where Voyager 1 is as of 2013. (NASA/JPL)