C.J. Marshall: Significa: Now Voyager - yesterday and today
A momentous event occurred recently in the march of human knowledge as the Voyager I spacecraft became the first man-made object in history to leave the solar system.
Created and launched in 1977 by the NASA space program, the purpose of the Voyager project was to explore the outer planets - something it achieved with resounding success. Before the probe arrived, our knowledge and information about Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were rudimentary and often speculative at best. The facts obtained from the Voyager probe, beamed back to earth via radio, were astounding, to say the least, and caused a tremendous jump in our understanding not only of the large outer worlds, but our own planetary system as well.
The Voyager probe was a marvel in scientific research and advancement, but I'm not going to talk about that here. Instead, I'm going to discuss something I find equally as marvelous.
When it was launched from earth back in 1977, the Voyager was considered to be THE cutting edge in advanced technology. That technology served it remarkably well in NASA's pursuit of information about the outer solar system.
But in the 35 more than years since Voyager's launch, scientific research has not stood still. It boggled my mind when I read in a recent article that the average cellular telephone has more computing power than the Voyager space probe. Really makes you stop and think, doesn't it?
When the Voyager left the earth, personal computers were just being introduced to consumers. They were primitive, clunky things, possessing a whooping 4 kilobytes of memory, using tape drives for storage and were little better than expensive toys on the market. But science kept on refining and expanding the personal computer's capabilities, to the point where it performs a wide variety of functions, and have become an indispensable part of our lives both at home and at work.
I mentioned cellular telephones earlier. Mobile telephone systems existed when Voyager was launched, but they were complicated affairs that required connections to special operators to route calls. As a result, they could only be installed in vehicles and used in larger cities. When telephones using the cellular system were first introduced in the 1990s, they were simpler to use, but still bulky affairs, called bag phones. But advances in miniaturization made phones smaller and lighter to the point where they could be easily carried in a pocket AND process a wealth of information such as photos, videos, and addresses - just to name a select few.
I recently came into possession of a tablet, which has quickly turned into one of my favorite recent scientific advances. Back in 1977, if you said "tablet" people would automatically assume you meant a pad of paper to write on. Although that name still holds, today tablet can also mean a hand-held device which can store and play a wide variety of information in ways undreamed of just five years ago. One of my favorite uses is to transfer videos to my tablet employing a SANS chip, which is a microchip about the size of my fingernail. With a 16 gigabyte capacity, the chip can store a HUGE amount of specially coded information, allowing me to view quite a few movies on it at my leisure. In addition, I can obtain books from certain websites and read them - many free of charge or for a nominal fee - as long as I'm near a wireless router to the Internet.
Ah yes, the Internet. Mustn't forget that. It was available back in 1977, but most people didn't even realize it existed. It was primarily developed for the military to allow large computers to swap information. As home computers became more available, ways were developed - first via telephone, then by cable systems - for personal computers to "talk" to each other and share data. As a result, the Internet evolved from a mysterious, almost unknown device to an informational superhighway in which knowledge is obtained and exchanged from various sources at a rate never before seen in the history of the human race.
As a result, our scientific advancement continues to progress at an ever-increasing rate. At one time, it sometimes took decades for humanity to take advantage of a leap in technology; now, such things are often available in months. A person can purchase a computer with all the cutting edge "bells and whistles," one year, then find himself next year using something that's considered an "also ran," when compared to what's on next year's market.
As NASA scientists prepared for the Voyager launch, it was speculated that there was a good chance it would survive its years long journey to the point it would leave the solar system. Even though they realized the odds were infinitesimally small the probe would be discovered by an extraterrestrial civilization, they decided it would be a shame to allow Voyager to go off into interstellar without some kind of record indicating where it came from. As a result, a gold record was prepared, containing such data was what we looked like, as well as greetings in numerous human languages. On the off-off chance the Voyager probe is discovered, let us hope we - as a race - are still around to show that not only are we capable of sending a message to the stars, but we could eventually physically reach them as well.