January 1, 2014
New Year's in Interstellar Space

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

In a tradition that dates back to 1936, the Associated Press – towards the end of every year – conducts a poll of its U.S. editors and news directors asking them to list the biggest news stories of that year. After the votes are tallied, the AP puts out its list of the top 10 news stories of the previous 12 months.

The poll results are usually gathered by mid-December, which means that there are a couple of weeks during which a big story could break that might skew the results. Indeed, last year the poll results were in by December 13, but the next day came the horrific shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

In a rare move, the AP conducted a new poll after the murders. It was no surprise that the mass shooting went to the top of the list.

For 2013, the number one news story, according to the AP, was the launch of President Obama’s healthcare overhaul. “The White House,” the AP said, “had hoped the October 1 launch of open enrollment would be a showcase for the upside of Obama’s much-debated overhaul. Instead, the website became a symbol of dysfunction, providing Republicans and late-night comics with ammunition.”

Coming in at number two was a hideous story of bloodshed and destruction: the Boston Marathon bombing. Three people were killed, and more than 260 were injured – including at least 16 who lost limbs. During the manhunt for the two brothers who planted the bomb, the city was locked down and an MIT police officer was killed.

Story number three began in February with Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he would resign. That paved the way for Pope Francis – the first ever from the Americas.

The number four story was simply called “Divided Congress.” According to the AP, “opinion polls showed Congress with historically low approval ratings, and the key reason was seemingly intractable partisan conflict.”

Coming in at number five was the NSA spying story, and the saga of Edward Snowden, who leaked details of NSA surveillance operations.

Two decisions by the United States Supreme Court dealing with same-sex marriages provided the backdrop for the number six story. The death of South African leader Nelson Mandela was voted as the number seven story of the year. The typhoon that struck the Philippines on November 8, killing 6,000 people and leaving millions homeless, came in at number eight.

Sadly, the number nine story was a repeat – it was voted the number ten story last year: the ongoing civil war in Syria. The death toll in that conflict has now gone past 120,000.

The number ten national story in the AP’s poll was actually the number one story on the Ohio AP’s top ten list. It was the story of three women in Cleveland – Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus – who went missing more than a decade ago. On May 6, they escaped the nightmarish clutches of their captor, Ariel Castro, who later committed suicide in prison.

As is usually the case, most of the stories focused on bad news, death and devastation. Several others focused on the nation’s deeply divided politics. But it was possible to find a happier story if one turned one’s gaze toward the stars. This year there was a story out of NASA – which often provides inspiring stories – that probably went largely unnoticed, but was no less amazing for being obscure.

The story actually began decades ago, in the 1960s, when a proposal to make a Grand Tour to study the outer planets set NASA to work on a mission to explore the far reaches of our solar system.

From that proposal a spacecraft called Voyager 1 was created. Launched on September 5, 1977, its first goal was to fly close to Jupiter and Saturn, and in this endeavor the little spacecraft performed splendidly. It began sending images and data on Jupiter in January 1979. By the end of November 1980, Voyager 1 had done the same with Saturn, and its primary mission was accomplished.

But Voyager 1 didn’t just shut down and stop there. It kept speeding farther through our solar system, constantly sending back information along the way. Today, the probe is almost 12 billion miles from earth. And it’s not done yet.

In September, NASA announced Voyager 1 had reached a new milestone – it officially became the first human-made object to leave our solar system and venture into interstellar space.

Because there is no signpost in outer space that says, “Now Leaving the Solar System, Thanks for Visiting, Come Again Soon,” the scientists who keep an eye on Voyager 1 weren’t exactly certain when that boundary was crossed.  Through a complex process of measuring plasma waves, they finally determined that the spacecraft had gone over the border sometime during August 2012. But they weren’t able to make the official announcement until September 2013.

It’s really a remarkable achievement – this is a device with 1970s era technology; it has only 68 KB of memory on board – far less than a standard smartphone. And yet the little spacecraft is still traveling through space at 38,000 miles per hour, sending back data every day. Its transmissions, traveling at the speed of light, now take about 17 hours to reach Earth.

John Grunsfeld, of NASA, said, “Voyager has boldly gone where no probe has gone before, marking one of the most significant technological achievements in the annals of the history of science, and adding a new chapter in human scientific dreams and endeavors.”

Voyager 1 is expected to send back bits of information until about 2025, when its nuclear batteries will finally be unable to operate any single instrument. But even after that the spacecraft will keep traveling through interstellar space.

In about 40,000 years Voyager 1 will pass close to Gliese 445, a “nearby” star – just a little piece of humanity dropping in to visit the neighbors. Wonder what the top AP story will be that year?

Happy New Year everyone.