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Can You Hear Me Now?

November 16, 2003

Say you're a space alien wandering through that cold vastness looking for somewhere to discover or something to recycle for the deposit. You've always wondered if other cultures exist among distant planets in the sky below. Then, suddenly, you encounter a gangly, multi-armed capsule with a face like a satellite dish, a letter from a creature named Jimmy Carter and hieroglyphic instructions to play what looks like a phonograph record of Earth music such as Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." How primitive!

You've just found Voyager I, an 1,800-pound robot science lab, radio station and very remote observatory, now the most faraway object made by humanity. After 26 years of silent travel through frigid distances humans find impossible to grasp, let alone traverse, Voyager has left or is about to leave this solar system en route to somewhere else. That's a long way from Pasadena, where engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed, built and several times a week still talk with their metallic creature.

Venerable Voyager departed Sept. 5, 1977, to explore Jupiter, its moons and Saturn before the ringed planet's gravity lobbed it off into deep space. Like ancient earthbound explorers, Voyager discovered a lot -- moons and this solar system's only other known active volcanoes, spewing debris at velocities approaching a mile a second into plumes 190 miles tall.

Important too for the human spirit, Voyager has portaged the imaginations of many people who wonder. The space robot, one of 17 JPL has poking around our solar system, has over time assumed an anthropomorphic personality as a plucky nuclear-powered engine that could -- and did -- go far beyond its five-year design potential. Tiny generators possibly lasting another generation deliver electricity from the heat of decaying plutonium dioxide to power the instruments and radio in temperatures beneath 200 below.

While we fret over nature's hailstorms and humanity's malfunctions, it's worthwhile to pause and savor achievements. Voyager's numbers incur awe. It's now nearly 8.4 billion miles from our sun, 90 times Earth's distance. Since 1977, Voyager has traveled 9.5 billion miles, about 23.8 million trips to Sacramento.

The craft cruises a million miles a day through the galactic vacuum, a pace that would make the trip from Van Nuys to LAX in 2 seconds, even at 4 p.m. A one-way radio signal at the speed of light takes 12 hours, 34 minutes and 35 seconds, no, 36, no, 37. Nearly 20 dishes 100 feet across strain to capture and magnify the telling tones. If those signals' energy could be collected over a billion years, it would barely power one camera flashbulb once.

Scientists figure that, without term limits, it'll be 40,000 Earth years before Voyager I nears another planetary system. Now, that's a trip! Someday an alien spaceship might return Voyager for the deposit. Better yet, an alien robot explorer may already be coming this way with recorded greetings and music samples.

JPL officials might want to book venerable Dick Clark as the welcoming emcee. He knew Chuck Berry, too.

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