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As Voyager Leaves The Solar System, A CU Boulder Scientist Looks Back

CU Boulder
The Voyager spacecraft

In 1977, NASA launched two space probes to explore deep space and expand our view of the solar system. 40 years later, Voyager 1 and 2 are still sending back images to the amazement of scientists -- including University of Colorado Boulder’s Fran Bagenal. She’s a professor at CU Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, and

“It was completely nuts to see these new worlds for the first time,” says Bagenal. “And each time these new images would come up on the camera and you’d be going, ‘What are we seeing now?’”

For Bagenal, the planets themselves aren’t nearly as fascinating as their moons.

“And we were able to see not only those planets in gory detail – the Great Red Spot, the swirling clouds and so on, as well as the rings of Saturn – but we saw the moons which were completely separate worlds. Each one (is) very different,” says Bagenal. “We thought that they’d be a bit like our moon. Like a battered bunch of rock and maybe ice. But no. What we saw were volcanoes. We saw ice that seems to be opening up. We saw plums of stuff coming out. It was just amazingly different worlds.”

Credit CU Boulder
If Voyager 1 or 2 encounters another alien civilization, each is carrying “Golden Records” that include music, sounds and greetings from Earth. The late Carl Sagan conceived the idea titled “Murmurs of Earth.”

Bagenal began working with Voyager data as a doctoral student at MIT, where her early work predicted some of the probe’s findings.

“And then the day of March 6, 1979, the data was coming in on a print out,” Bagenal recalls. “So it would print out on this thing and it would move up and it would make another wiggly line. And look at those at those wiggly lines and they were just what I predicted. And I’ll never forget that moment.”

Voyager 1 is about 13 billion miles away and is headed beyond our solar system, into interstellar space. Voyager 2 is close behind, but on a different trajectory. Both are equipped with phonographic records with representations of earth’s sounds and music, along with greetings in 54 languages -- just in case.

Bagenal didn’t realize the launch of Voyager would also launch her own career.

“I got so lucky I could be involved with four different planets over a period of 12 years, just as I was starting to get into research and writing papers,” says Bagenal.