Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Voyage Of Voyager: Our Machines Out There In Space

The Voyage of Voyager: Our Machines Out There In Space

At certain moments I find myself contemplating Voyager 1's lonely flight out from the safe cradle of our solar system and into the unknown of interstellar space. Voyager 1 is currently the furtherest human made object from our home planet, rocketing at an astounding speed of over 60,000 kilometres per hour toward the stars. Also astoundingly, we are still receiving meaningful communication from it, though the vast distances of space and our current methods of communication make for a very slow conversation. It is conceivable that one day, travellers of non-terrestrial origin will pick up its inert form, haul it into their space ship and and inspect this piece of human space exploration history.

Back in the late 1970s when the voyager spacecrafts were being assembled, a record made of gold containing information on our planet and our species was placed into both Voyagers for just such an occasion. It comforts me that in the cold, mechanical process of space exploration, we as humans took the time to place such objects, a telling action on our part, and revealing of the romantic and aspiring notions we have of the greatest frontier we have ever encountered. How long and how far Voyager will hurtle into this frontier we cannot know, but space is the ultimate preserver of machines and its journey could be longer than our own.

So what about the machines we have left on celestial bodies in our solar system, those lost and lonely machines stranded on alien worlds? How long will they stand alone? Will they survive long enough to become historical monuments once we leave our earthly cradle and begin to explore the heavens?

The moon...

The Apollo landings left a host of objects that could be considered of historical significance. The first (and still so far the only) landings of humans on another celestial body means that not only are there objects such as flags, buggies, and scientific equipment, there are also footprints. The moon has no atmosphere, is geologically dead, and is only rarely impacted by anything of notable size. The moon is the perfect museum for preserving space exploration artefacts. Something as fragile as Neil Armstrong's first footprints in the fine Lunar regolith could last for thousands of years.


Up next in the historical timeline of space exploration is the Russian Venera series spacecraft, baking away on the surface of Venus. The first photos the craft (Venera 9 in 1975) took of itself and the Venusian landscape captured the imagination of the public and were the first photos from the surface of an actual planet other than Earth.

Considering the average temperature of Venus is over 450 degrees Celsius, the atmospheric pressure is a crushing 92 times that of Earth and the landscape is regularly renewed by volcanic activity, it's likely the Venera space crafts are no longer with us, eroded away or buried and melted under lava flows in this hellish landscape.


One of the darlings of the planetary family, Mars has had a succession of mechanical explorers sent to its surface to discover its secrets. In regards to long term preservation, human machines on Mars have in their favour the relatively thin Martian atmosphere, slower rate of oxidisation, and low temperatures. Against them they have the wild and abrasive Martian dust storms, with winds reaching speeds of almost 500 km per hour in some regions. And while Mars is relatively cold, the temperature differentials would contribute to metal fatigue and cracking. If at the end of its working life a robotic explorer rested in a relatively sheltered area, it may escape the worst ravages of the storms and be preserved for hundreds of years. In any case, it would definitely be faring better than its poor Venusian counterparts.


The largest moon of Saturn, Titan has long held the fascination of exobiologists with the enticing possibility of life on its cold but active and chemically rich surface. In 2005 the Huygens probe landed on Titan, snapping pictures of a surface covered in rocks and pebbles made of water ice and layered in hydrocarbon snow. Once again cool temperatures would contribute to the longevity of this probe against the ravages of time, but the hydrocarbon rich atmosphere and weather activity would mean that erosion, both chemical physical, would be a factor. Still better than Venus...

That's it for the current list of our industrious little machines that have beavered (or are still beavering) away on our behalf on the surface of our fellow terrestrial bodies. But while we are on the subject of humankind's interesting space junk, whatever happened to Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite which was launched by the Russians in 1957, scaring the bejesus out of honest, god fearing westerners with its ominous commie beeping, and starting the whole space race that brought us to where we are now? Turns out it lasted about three months in orbit before re-entering the Earth's atmosphere and burning to a total crisp. So much for the grandaddy of all of the space machines being preserved for posterity.

No comments:

Post a Comment