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Voyager 1 Becomes First Man-Made Object to Leave Solar System; Probe Still Powered by GE Technology

A new research paper published today in the journal Science concluded that the Voyager 1 spacecraft became the first man-made object to leave the solar system and enter interstellar space. The journal says that “after long disagreements, that is now the consensus view of Voyager mission team leaders.” The 35-year old spacecraft is still relying on GE technology, including command computers and power generators.

“I don’t know if it’s in the same league as landing on the moon, but it’s right up there — ‘Star Trek’ stuff, for sure,” said Donald A. Gurnett, a professor of physics at the University of Iowa and the co-author of the paper told the New York Times.

The spacecraft is now than 11.7 billion miles from home, almost 50,000 times farther than a trip to the moon. The Voyager 1 and its sibling the Voyager 2 launched in 1977. They were expected to last only a few years. “NASA considered everything past the Saturn encounter a bonus,” said Dr. Howard Butler, who ran GE’s Aerospace Electronic Systems Department.

GE engineers designed the Voyagers’ command computers directing the flight path and providing communication links with NASA Mission Control, as well as the probes’ power source called radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). These devices still remain in service and convert the heat produced from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium into electricity for the spacecraft’s instruments, computers, radio and other systems.

Scientists have been speculating for several years about the exact timing spacecraft’s departure from the heliosphere, the limit of the particles thrown off by the sun. Last October, GE’s science and technology publication Txchnologist noted that since September 2012, the craft’s instruments have sensed a major, sustained drop in the low-energy charged particles released by the sun that reach it. The prediction was about five days off: the exact date of departure was Aug. 25, 2012.

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The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft launched in 1977. They are currently exploring the edge of the solar system. GE engineers designed the Voyagers’ command computers directing the flight path and providing communication links with NASA Mission Control. They also developed the probes’ electricity generator for the spacecraft’s instruments, computers, radio and other systems. The Voyagers have sent back detailed images of the solar system planets and their moons, confirmed the existence of Neptune’s rings, and gathered data about stars near the edges of the Milky Way.

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The Voyagers’s next mission is to explore the boundary of the Solar System. NASA now estimates that the probes will survive until 2025. The Voyagers also carry cargo designed to communicate a message from Earth to extraterrestrials. Each probe holds a special phonograph record, a 12-inch encoded gold-plated copper disc containing music, sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, from Bach and Chuck Berry to birds, heartbeat, and laughter.

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