Reaching Out To The Stars

Tom Feilden
Science correspondent, Today

image copyrightAP

Nasa clearly gets it, kicking off its press conference on the Voyager space mission with an impromptu skit based on the iconic opening sequence of Star Trek.

"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the star ship... Voyager. Its mission: to boldly go where no probe has gone before."

OK, so Nasa doesn't do drama, or comedy sketches for that matter, but it does seem to have grasped the significance of the moment.

As Ed Stone, the principle scientist on the Voyager programme from its inception in the early 1970's put it: "Wow, when we first saw that data it was really quite stunning. We got there.

"In leaving the heliospere and setting sail across the cosmic seas between the stars, Voyager has joined the other historic journeys of exploration such as the first circumnavigation of the earth and the first footprint on the moon."

That's not to say you'd notice much difference if you were on board.

The stars are still so far away that they'd look pretty much the same as they do from earth, but the view back towards the sun and the planets would be interesting.

The sun would be very dim and distant and the planets mere dots, perhaps a bit like the moons of Jupiter viewed through a telescope.

Working out exactly when Voyager crossed from the heliospere to interstellar space has taken NASA quite a while.

The arguments started last August when the shower of energetic charged particles bombarding the probe and the plasma density began to change.

It has taken until now to pinpoint the significance of those changes, and to home in on a specific date - 25 August 2012.

Speaking on the Today programme, John Logsdon described that date as an important step in the exploration of space.

He said: "If humanity moves outwards both with its machines and eventually people beyond our solar system, and that's a centuries long project, then that date will be a landmark in human history."

Voyager will continue to monitor conditions in the interstellar medium for years to come, and to feedback data as it hurtles ever further out into space.

Boldly going - with apologies to Gene Roddenberry - where no man, or man-made probe, has gone before.