Science: Space Age Grand Tour

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Shaky start to a long journey

The U.S. attempted a huge step toward a distant planet and the interstellar space beyond it last week—but not without some unexpected difficulty. At Florida's Kennedy Space Center, an 1,800-pound spacecraft known as Voyager 2 was launched atop a Titan-Centaur rocket and aimed at Jupiter, 579 million miles and nearly two years away. Voyager 2 was hardly aloft, however, before it reported a malfunction in the boom that carries a key package of TV cameras and scientific instruments.

The boom extended after lift-off on schedule, but apparently failed to lock. That complicated the mission and cast an initial pall over an impressive $500 million program. Voyager 2 is to be followed on Sept. 1 by Voyager 1, a similar spacecraft so numbered because it will reach Jupiter four months earlier than Voyager 2 on a different trajectory.

Presuming Voyager 2 overcomes its troubles, the twin flight is a unique project. The Voyagers go elaborately equipped for sightseeing. They carry wide-and narrow-angle television cameras, cosmic ray detectors, magnetometers, infra-red spectrometers and radiometers, as well as instruments for detecting and recording ultraviolet radiation and radio emissions from the planets. They will, it is hoped, give man his closest look yet at Jupiter, a planet that contains more matter than all the other planets in the solar system put together. The pair will also devote a good deal of attention to four of Jupiter's 13 moons.

From Jupiter, the Voyagers are to head for the ringed planet Saturn, 917 million miles from Earth. The mission there is a look at the satellite Titan, where scientists hope to find organic molecules similar to those on Earth. Voyager 2 could be sent on to Uranus, 20 times farther from the sun than Earth, and possessor of a newly discovered system of rings (TIME, April 11); it would not reach Uranus until January 1986. Eventually the Voyagers would pass beyond the solar system.

The Voyagers have some special baggage: a sound-and-light show designed to give anyone (or anything) that might intercept the ship an idea of what things are like back on Earth. Earthly images include slides showing human anatomy and a diagram of human conception, mathematical formulas, and a shot of Idaho's spectacular Snake River. Among the recordings: street sounds, the cry of a newborn baby, the hum of a string quartet, the roar of a Saturn rocket lifting off. Also included is a greeting written and read by President Carter. "This is a present from a small, distant world," his message begins. "A token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination." NASA estimates that it would take Voyager 1 at least 40,000 years to approach the nearest star system and deliver the message—and, presumably, the same amount of time for anyone (or anything) out there to reply.