Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The little spacecraft that could

In Shakespeare's "The Tempest," Miranda grows to age sixteen on an ocean isle with no human companions other than her father Prospero and the monster Caliban. When storm and shipwreck bring others to the island she is suddenly awakened to the variety and beauty of humankind. "O brave new world," she exclaims,"that has such people in't!"

Of all the space craft launched from Earth, none have so opened our eyes to the variety and beauty of the solar system than Voyagers 1 and 2, two plucky little craft that photographed Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and those planets' moons, including one named Miranda. O brave new world, indeed, that has such objects in it.

Now, more than 27 years after launch, the craft are nearly 9 billion and 7 billion miles from Earth, instruments active, in daily contact with home, drifting towards the elusive boundary between the Sun's domain and interstellar space.

Because of budget restrictions, the Voyagers face possible termination later this year. If so, they will drift towards the abyss, capable of perceiving and reporting their environment -- but no one will be listening.