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Now, Voyager

Mercury Summer 2007 Table of Contents

Voyager spacecraft
Illustration courtesy of NASA

by Erica Naone

In August 1989, as Voyager 2 approached the planet Neptune, I was not quite eight. I had a book I liked to take out sometimes that smelled of the high-gloss paper it needed for the brilliant color of its images. It was about a boy who traveled with a robot through the Solar System, learning about each planet as he went. My book could hardly have existed without Voyager 2 and its sister, Voyager 1 -- two real robot travelers.

Voyager 2 was twelve that year, racing near 65,000 kilometers an hour toward the blue planet for its last star-studded planetary encounter, "the last picture show" as scientists called it. For the world premiere, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena was packed with A-list journalists and investigators eager to get a glimpse of the space probe's images of this distant world.

John Belcher, principal investigator for Voyager's plasma science experiment at the time, recalled the moment he found out when the last picture show would take place. "What did I do?" he said. "I sat down with a calendar and figured out when Sunday was and how long I would have to get my results into the Sunday edition of the New York Times."

Voyager's star quality may have still shined brightly back on Earth, but its rendezvous with Neptune was taking place five billion miles from the Sun, in the dim recesses of the Solar System where sunlight was faint and radio transmissions fainter. By then, the famous spacecraft had enough scientific discoveries under its belt to have caused several rounds of textbook revisions. But as Voyager headed for its glamorous final photo shoot at the edge of humanity's reach, its age was starting to show.

Media descriptions of the spacecraft at the time depicted it as heroic and struggling, as if it were Christopher Reeve at the end of his life rather than the Christopher Reeve as Superman. In a New York Times article headlined "Astronomers strain to hear Voyager's last, weak signals," John Noble Wilford described the "aging Voyager 2" as "groping in the dim vastness far from home, arthritic and partly deaf, feeble of voice and prone to memory lapses."

To hear him tell it, the probe was almost dead. That was what I thought at the time. When the exotic pictures stopped rolling in, it seemed there was nothing left for the craft to do but fly silently off into the pasture of deep outer space.

Now, as I look over Voyager's images of Neptune seventeen years later, sinking my eyes into the serenity of their pacific blue, I see the storms brewing underneath and the life Voyager still had inside it to capture such turmoil. Through Voyager's eyes, the outermost planet appeared aptly named: ocean-colored and dotted by white clouds resembling breakers at the beach. Three days after its closest approach to Neptune, Voyager sent an image of the planet and its moon Triton, each a pale gray sliver, looking like double new Moons fading to black. That was the moment Voyager really pulled away from shore, plunging into unknown space, soon to be blind but far from dead.

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