An incredible scientific achievement has gone by, almost unnoticed and unsung, by our sensationalist media; and the heroes of this astonishing, almost godlike feat have been overshadowed by the petty acts and concerns of demagogues who have captured the entire intelligence space in this age of information. The visual media has completely ignored it, perhaps because the corporate barons, who inhabit this media world, do not have the intelligence to understand the significance of an event of such superhuman proportions. The print media is equally complicit, even if a paragraph here and a column there brought the news to the readers, without any commentary or the history behind this momentous achievement of the human mind.
I am referring to NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 space missions that began 36 years ago with the launch of Voyager 2 on 20th August 1977. Voyager 1 was launched 15 days later on the 5th of September. Both the spacecrafts weighed 722 Kgs., but Voyager 1 achieved a maximum speed of 62136 Kms/hour while Voyager 2 travelled at 57888 Kms/hour. Even before the year was over, Voyager 1 had sped past Voyager 2; and at the time of the writing of this piece, Voyager 1 is approx. 18.783 billion Kms. away from the earth, while Voyager 2 is about 3.50 billion Kms behind its twin.
The two missions were initially launched with the objective of the exploration of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. With their spectacular success in making some stunning discoveries like active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io, and the unraveling of the mystery behind the rings of Saturn, the planners at NASA decided to extend their mission, and Voyager 2 was sent to explore Uranus and Neptune. It is the only spacecraft to have visited these two outer planets of the solar system. The mission’s goalposts have continuously been shifted from the exploration of the solar system around and beyond the outer planets, and then to the outer limits of the Sun’s sphere of influence; the search for the “heliopause” boundary where the Sun’s magnetic field and the outward flow of solar wind ceases to operate. Beyond the heliopause boundary is interstellar space which the two spacecrafts will eventually enter and from where they are expected to transmit signals until their batteries run out, possibly in another 12 years from now. The two spacecrafts are destined, eternally, one hopes, to wander the Milky Way.
NASA researchers announced on 12th September 2013 that Voyager 1 had arrived in interstellar space, the first manmade object ever to have entered this part of the universe. The spacecraft had actually arrived there in August, 2012, but the scientists took over one year to analyze the data and confirm that the spacecraft had actually entered interstellar space. Gary Zank, Director of the Centre for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, said: “For the first time, we are actually going to be able to put our hands in the interstellar medium and ask what it does and what characteristics it possesses.” A tremendous opportunity for scientists looking for answers to questions about the origin of the universe and the search for extra terrestrial intelligence! Complete details on the Voyager Missions can be accessed at JPL’s site.
It is a pity that except within academic circles, this historic moment has passed practically unnoticed. It is even a greater tragedy for us in India whose ancestors had been among the early humans to seriously think about such questions, and to explore the science of astronomy. Aryabhata, in the 5th century had suggested that the earth revolved round the sun and rotated on its axis; something the Western world considered blasphemous and for which belief Galileo Galilei was pronounced a heretic, in 1633 CE. In Aryabhata’s time the precession of the equinoxes was known, as well as the lengths of the year and the lunar month. Eclipses were accurately forecast and their causes were understood. In mathematics India had made astounding contributions. The mathematical implications of zero and infinity were fully understood. The earliest inscription dated 595 CE, recording a date by a system of nine digits and a zero, with place notations for tens and hundreds, comes from Gujarat. Bhaskara II of Ujjain had made a significant contribution to calculus almost 500 years before Newton. He had accurately calculated the value of the sidereal year, the time that is taken by the earth to orbit the sun. Today, his measurement is off by just three-and-a-half minutes. Indian thought suddenly atrophied with the advent of Puranic Hinduism, which was followed by 800 years of Islamic and 200 years of British rule. This one millennium of philosophical and cultural paralysis has spawned the present generation of largely uneducated and incurious people, an amorphous mass of empty minds wallowing in the excesses of self-gratification!
By Vijaya Dar
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech