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January 31, 2020

Dear readers,

There was a time I seriously wondered if I could hijack the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. Not whether I would or should hijack them, of course, but—presuming I had the technical ability and the criminally perverse turn of mind—whether I could. In that moment, the answer was arguably yes. I reflected on that surreal experience just this week, as NASA released the troubling news that Voyager 2 had phoned in sick, placing in jeopardy the life one of the most venerable spacecraft of all time.

It was the late 1990s that I had my visions of hijack. I was visiting NASA's and Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena while working on a book about the exploration of the deep solar system and its marble bag of colorful moons. More than any other spacecraft, it was the Voyagers that were responsible for most of that exploring. The control room I was visiting was the focus of the global space community's attention beginning when the two Voyagers were launched in the summer of 1977. The excitement and the attention returned in 1979 when the twin probes reached Jupiter, then again in 1980 and 1981 when they reconnoitered Saturn. Voyager 1 then whipped around Saturn's moon Titan for a close-up look, but the flight controllers knew that maneuver would spell the end of the spacecraft's explorations, as the close encounter with the giant moon would slingshot it on a course up and away from the plane of the solar system. Voyager 2, however, would continue to fly on the flat, encountering Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989.

Then things went quiet. The Voyagers would carry on investigating the environment of the deep solar system—the solar wind and other forms of energy crackling through space beyond the known planets, but their headline-making days were clearly over. So by the time I was ambling through JPL in the late 1990s, the once-busy control room of desks and computers looked more like an empty business office than a space center. They were researching the things that the Voyagers had done, not what they would still do.

It was then, as I later wrote in my book Moon Hunters, that I noticed the bright orange stickers attached to the keyboards and monitors of several unattended computers. "CAUTION," they read, "THIS IS A LIVE VOYAGER CONSOLE. DO NOT TOUCH."

So had I touched—and had I known what I was doing—could I have changed the course of the spacecraft and, in the process, the course of space history? Maybe. The fact is, doing any harm to either of the ships would indeed do profound harm to science, because even today, more than 42 years after the Voyagers' launch, the sister ships fly on. Their radio thermal generators (RTGs), fueled by the isotope plutonium-238, have kept them powered since the early days of the Jimmy Carter presidency and are good for another decade or so before they start to wink out. That has kept the ships studying the farthest reaches of the solar system, beaming home data. When first Voyager 1 and then Voyager 2, in 2012 and 2018, punched through the heliopause—the point at which the fading strength of the outward-streaming charged particles known as the solar wind bump up against the interstellar medium of energy and dust—the ships technically left the solar system and entered interstellar space.

Neither Voyager is the ship it once was. Their dwindling maneuvering fuel and power supplies mean that controllers back in Pasadena ask little of them, beyond obeying basic commands to maintain the proper orientation so they can return readings of their environment. Even those simple jobs take time and effort. Voyagers 1 and 2 are 13 billion and 11 billion miles (21 billion and 18 billion km) away respectively, and even traveling at the speed of light, a command from Earth takes 20 and 17 hours to arrive at the spacecraft. It then takes another 20 or 17 hours for confirmation to come back that the command has been obeyed. (NASA's mile-by-mile, second-by-second, real-time ticker of the spacecrafts' position, time in space and more is available here.)

For Voyager 2, the 42 years, five months and four days of exploration looked to be in danger when, on January 25, the spacecraft failed to carry out a command to execute a 360-degree pirouette in order to calibrate its magnetic field instruments. The problem was a result of one of the spacecraft's built-in fail-safe mechanisms doing what it was supposed to do—in this case, partly shutting the ship down when two instruments, both of which consume relatively high levels of power, were inadvertently left running at the same time. It's a smart, automatic precaution and has worked well over the decades, but rebooting the ship and getting the right systems running from such a distance isn't easy. By January 28, the engineers had one of the power-gobbling instruments that wasn't supposed to be running turned back off and the proper instruments powered up, but Voyager 2 had not yet resumed its vital data-collection work.

"The team is now reviewing the status of the rest of the spacecraft and working on returning it to normal operations," said NASA in a press release.

For 42 years now, the Voyager teams have been "reviewing the status" of both spacecraft, keeping them performing their "normal operations," and doing both with the same precision, skill and anodyne calm captured in the language of the press release. One day, well within the life spans of most people alive today, the Voyagers will die. The probes that thundered off their launch pad in Florida atop their Titan IIIE rockets more than two generations will go cold and quiet. Once-humming robots will become nothing more than outward-bound buoys, a form of metallic machine art built by a perishable species on a transitory world left far behind. Whatever the Voyagers' future, they've already done a lifetime's work, producing a body of data that will long be maintained, studied and admired by the descendants of the humans who built them and set them flying.

—Jeffrey Kluger


POLL
The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft were the first to reveal the true complexity and potential of the solar system's moons. Not counting our own moon, which is the greatest, most promising, or simply coolest of the 200-plus others? (For bonus points, explain why.)
🌑 Enceladus
🌒 Europa
🌓 Titan
🌔 Io
🌕 Charon
Email your answer to space@time.com.

IMAGE OF THE WEEK
NASA's Sentinel-6A satellite
ESA/NASA

No one does art quite like NASA. Not only has the space agency made itself expert at converting digital signals sent to Earth from spacecraft cameras into dazzling photography, it also has a way with producing still and video renderings of spacecraft that aren't yet flying. But the artists turned out a clunker this week when NASA released an image of a new meteorological satellite it hopes to launch—with partners including the European Space Agency—next fall. The ostensible point of the press release was to reveal that the new satellite will be named in honor of venerable and recently retired Earth scientist Michael Freilich. But the image told a different story—one that seemed closer to the breaking news that the tornado that transported the Kansas farmhouse carrying Dorothy and Toto to the Emerald City in fact carried them to low Earth orbit. It didn't, and if it had, a weather maven like Freilich surely would have had the news by now.


WHAT WE’RE READING

China takes E.T. seriously

When China does something, it does it big. So it's no surprise that its Five-hundred meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (a labored, sloppily capitalized name designed to yield the acronym FAST), which went into operation earlier this month, is the world's largest. With a diameter of half a kilometer (0.3 mi.) and an area equivalent to 30 football fields, it has already proven its powers in two years of preliminary testing, discovering 102 new pulsars, which the XuinhaNet news site takes pains to point out is "more than the total number of pulsars discovered by research teams in Europe and the United States during the same period." FAST will continue doing this kind of sober work, but, according to Axios, it does not plan to miss out on the fun. In this case, that means joining the $100 million Breakthrough Listen Project, founded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, which is expected to survey 100 galaxies and more than 1 million discrete stars looking for regular pulses that could indicate the presence of intelligent life. The sheer size and precision of FAST should help it tease real signals from noise and stray data—meaning that he first hello E.T. hears from Earth could well come out "Ni hao."

Still waiting...

The Hubble Space telescope is a hard act to follow. Launched in 1990 and still making breakthrough discoveries, Hubble is easily the most successful cosmic observation instrument ever built. But NASA swore it had an even greater follow-up in mind: the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)—which would be bigger, better, see farther and discover more than Hubble ever could. That's still the boast and JWST could still live up to it. But there's a problem: The entire instrument was supposed to cost a comparatively low $1 billion and launch roughly a decade ago. It's still on the ground, its current price tag is approaching $10 billion, and this week Ars Technica and other outlets report on a Government Accounting Office (GAO) study which found the telescope has just a 12% chance of meeting its latest launch target of March 2021. The delays are mostly engineering problems, rather than bureaucratic or fiscal ones. The telescope's giant 6.5 meter (21 ft) wide mirror is launched in folded configuration and has to unfurl once it's in space; the telescope as a whole has 300 so-called "single point of failure" parts—or components that all by themselves will be show-stoppers if they don't work as designed. Expect JWST to push through to launch eventually; all by itself, $10 billion in sunk costs ensures that no one in government is likely to abandon the project. But no one in government even pretends not to be flat-out fed up with all the delays.

Boldly Going to trademark infringement court

There was no end of online hooting and hilarity when President Trump released via tweet the logo for his new Space Force, a design, the President said, that had been reached "After consultation with our Great Military Leaders, designers, and others." Perhaps he should have added lawyers for the estate of the late Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, to that list of consultants, because the logo Trump unveiled is so similar to that of the imaginary Starfleet that it's as if the present-day designers weren't even trying to pretend otherwise. "It's almost comical. Almost" tweeted Task & Purpose, a military community Twitter site.

Task & Purpose Starfleet tweet
Twitter/Task & Purpose

But Popular Mechanics, not known for sentiment, has a sweet take on the imbroglio, arguing that any similarity between the Space Force and Starfleet is a feature, not a bug. "[T]this isn't the first time that Space Force has copied Star Trek's homework—hell, it isn't even the first time this month," Popular Mechanics wrote. "A few weeks ago, the Air Force announced it would be transitioning one of its units to the Space Force, designated the Space Operations Center, or SPOC—you see where this is going." More important, Starfleet was always depicted as a peace-loving, diversity-embracing body whose prime directive was to respect, and not interfere, with other cultures. "If the Space Force wants to take a few pointers from Starfleet, it should," Popular Mechanics added, "and it should copy some of Starfleet's ideals as well."

Our popcorn sun

"First light" is an evocative name for a critical moment in the life of any telescope, when, as the name suggests, it opens its eyes for the first time and records its first image. For the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), built atop Hawaii's Haleakala volcano and named after the state's late and beloved Senator, who served in the Senate for nearly half a century until his death in 2012, first light was also big news. That's because it produced a dazzling and utterly surprising image of the sun, which got above-the-fold coverage by the usually staid New York Times. The picture showed the surface of the sun as it has never been seen before, broken up into golden thermal regions, each of which resembled nothing so much as a kernel of popcorn—except for the fact that most of them are about the size of Texas. Good science and exquisite pictures need not be separate things.

Amazon to the moon

It was not a hard call last summer when TIME declared that the Blue Moon spacecraft, built by Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, was the easy leader in the race among private companies to build the lunar lander for NASA's return-to-the-moon Artemis program. That's not least because Blue Origin saw the new moon race coming and began work on Blue Moon more than three years ago, while most of its competitors are scrambling to play catch-up as NASA entertains bids in what is increasingly looking like a pro forma exercise with the likely winner already lapping the field. Now comes word from GeekWire and elsewhere that Blue Origin and the Air Force are collaborating at the Air Force Research Laboratory on Edwards Air Force Base in California to test the lunar lander's new BE-7 engine. The Air Force is already the parent agency of the aborning Space Force. If it's now serving as an ostensible test partner on the Blue Moon lander, it's all the more reason to expect the man who gave us Amazon's same-day delivery to expand his reach to the lunar surface.


THANKS FOR READING

TIME Space is written by Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large at TIME and the author of 10 books, including Apollo 13, Apollo 8 and two novels for young adults. Follow him at @jeffreykluger.

We welcome any feedback at space@time.com.

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