back to article Voyager antenna operator: 'I was the first human to see images from Neptune'

When Richard Stephenson drives to work, there's a chance that later that day he'll become the first human to see new details of Mars, a moon of Saturn, or the far reaches of the solar system. Again. Stephenson's seen plenty of such firsts because his job as an Operations Supervisor at the Canberra Deep Space Tracking Complex …

  1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Sounds like a dream job

    First in line for seeing what other planets/moons/comets are like, seeing Saturn's rings or Io's volcanoes up close before anyone else, and all that in a beautiful country environment. What's not to like ?

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Sounds like a dream job

      Add another perk to this... I daresay we'll never, ever see a Friday "On-Call" from him. Truly a dream career. Seriously, I'm in total awe at what he does and sees.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Sounds like a dream job

      He has to live in Canberra, which is the penalty he pays for such a cool job.

  2. Your alien overlord - fear me
    Paris Hilton

    First in line, along with the other dozen nerds crowded around the screen. Sounds like he's bigging up his job to explain it to his kids what he does all day.

    Paris? Space cadet, also seen completely and explicitly in detail by most people, thanks to cameras :-)

    1. Fursty Ferret

      This may come across a bit rude, which is frankly my intention. You're a bit of a knob.

      It's rare to find someone who's still enthusiastic about their job, and while you might hate yours (after all, you're on El Reg even as the working day begins), but that's no excuse for the ignorant cynicism you're demonstrating.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      First in line, along with the other dozen nerds crowded around the screen. Sounds like he's bigging up his job to explain it to his kids what he does all day.

      I'm afraid you merely show your ignorance. Do you have any idea just how weak a -168dB signal actually is? Incredible that they can still pick it up.

      1. Callam McMillan

        Given that an audio signal attenuated to -78dB gives silence, even with my amplifier cranked to maximum. -168dB is a billion times weaker. Even with cryogenically cooled amplifiers, getting a signal that weak is an immense achievement.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          "Silence" is relative

          A typical DBS system in the US has incoming signals at -90 dbm, and they can be received with an 18" dish and LNA that costs less than a buck. ATSC antennas can receive signals even weaker than that if you add a good low noise preamp. Your ears are just not engineered as well I guess :)

          But -168 dbm, damn that's impressive!

    3. Lord Elpuss Silver badge

      Our alien overlord is a bellend. Who knew.

  3. Hans 1 Silver badge

    Reminds me of the following video, Voyager I:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sb4WhNvLRFw

    Love, peace, and understanding

  4. RegGuy1 Silver badge
    Coat

    Anntenae (not anntenas)

    Opps, a little slip in there -- antennas -- but you corrected yourself afterwards with the correct form: antennae. At least you didn't commit that heinous crime of saying indexes when you meant indicies (or use matrixes for matrices).

    Nice to see people still really know how to spell.

    BTW, excellent article on the unsung heroes (from the Greek) that make everything else work.

    (I'll get my coat.)

    1. deadlockvictim

      Re: Anntenae (not anntenas)

      Etymologically & classically aware commentard» indicies. oh dear. Nominative plural non-neuter third declension is what now?

      John Cleese for you, I'm afraid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAfKFKBlZbM

    2. Annihilator Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: Anntenae (not anntenas)

      "you meant indicies "

      And you meant indices. Pedantry is brilliant weapon to deploy, but maybe not do it while standing in a greenhouse.

    3. 2+2=5 Silver badge

      Re: Anntenae (not anntenas)

      @ RegGuy1

      At least you didn't commit that heinous crime of saying indexes when you meant indicies (or use matrixes for matrices).

      Pedantically, 'indexes' is a valid, alternate form of 'indices' but both are pronounced as 'indices'.

    4. I3N
      Pint

      What, not Aerials ... Re: Anntenae (not anntenas)

      Re-calibrated the elReg translator to American English - indicated a reference to software bug appendages

      Sources say that both of these forms - antennas/antennae - are used in Australia

      Spanish translator comes in with antenas

      Honored to up-vote both John Cleese and Socrates in the same post!

    5. Lord Elpuss Silver badge

      Re: Anntenae (not anntenas)

      "when you meant indicies"

      Well that must be embarrassing.

  5. Chris G Silver badge

    To see what no man has seen before

    Not talking about Nun's knickers.

    The only way to beat his job for this kind of excitement is by actually going to these places and that possibility is a few decades off at least.

    How nice to have such a rewarding job.

    1. Primus Secundus Tertius

      Re: To see what no man has seen before

      Many jobs have their rewarding moments, e.g. -

      - When a teacher sees the penny drop in one of their pupils.

      - When a salesman sees the customer sign on the dotted line.

      - When a manager sees the work completed on time and budget, and signed off.

      - When a politician wins an election.

      I think of James Clerk Maxwell, who predicted electromagnetic waves. He also calculated their speed, based on measured constants in the lab, and it was as near as dammit the speed of light. That was the first clue to what light really is.

      But the Voyager man has every right to be happy in his job.

      1. Fatman
        Joke

        Re: To see what no man has seen before

        <quote>When a salesman sees the customer sign on the dotted line commission check

        There!!!

        FTFY.

      2. Unicornpiss Silver badge
        Pint

        Re: Many jobs have their rewarding moments..

        ..And when an IT worker picks up his or her first pint of the evening when the day is over :)

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Unhappy

    Unfortunately...

    ...this still won't get him laid.

    1. Magani
      Happy

      Re: Unfortunately...

      Shirley, there's got to be a nerdette out there who digs this stuff?

      1. Ogi

        Re: Unfortunately...

        > Shirley, there's got to be a nerdette out there who digs this stuff?

        There are, but they are a rare minority in my experience. The nerd/nerdette ratio is far skewed towards the male gender from my experience, unfortunately.

        If the current push of getting more women interested in STEM results in more nerdettes in 15-20 years time, that would be great for the next generation of nerds, if a bit late for me though :-(

      2. Hollerithevo Silver badge

        Re: Unfortunately...

        @Magani and @Ogi,

        So women should be encouraged into STEM so they can be nerdettes to lonely heterosexual nerds in a few years time? What an enticement! And clearly this thinking has created the sort of tech world where women are few and far between.

        1. strum

          Re: Unfortunately...

          >So women should be encouraged into STEM so they can be nerdettes to lonely heterosexual nerds in a few years time? What an enticement!

          Well - one of the reasons girls haven't (traditionally) gone in for STEM is the fear that boys won't like them, if they appear too clever.

          1. Lord Elpuss Silver badge

            Re: Unfortunately...

            "Well - one of the reasons girls haven't (traditionally) gone in for STEM is the fear that boys won't like them, if they appear too clever."

            Citation needed. Seriously; I've heard this (as hearsay) a bunch of times, but have honestly never ever met a guy who finds clever girls a problem (in fact quite the opposite) - and I've never heard a girl actually say she experiences it as a problem. And I work in IT.

          2. Tom Paine Silver badge
            Facepalm

            Re: Unfortunately...

            You've bent the needle in my Wrongometer when it pegged off-scale high.

            1. Lord Elpuss Silver badge

              Re: Unfortunately...

              @Tom Paine

              Who are you aiming your wrongometer at?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Unhappy

      Re: Unfortunately...

      It won't. I promise you.

  7. Andy The Hat Silver badge

    There's someone there?

    I'm sure I heard a documentary - "War of the Worlds" or something - when they were calling "Can-berra, come in Can-berra ..." and nobody answered ... dum dum dum, da da da, da da da

    Mr Stephenson must have been on tea break ... :-)

  8. Stuart 22
    Pint

    Wow - that's fast!

    "Even Voyager 1 can beat that, regulalry hitting 160 bits per second and reaching 1,200 bits per second when emptying its memory."

    Around that time (40 years ago) I remember the step up from 110 bps on a teleprinter to 300 bps on a termprinter was like amazing. And doing on an acoustic modem was absolute magic. I remember the thrill of communicating as far as a BBS in Hull ...

    Whereas these guys and guyesses were building something that can do that from beyond the solar system to a receiver only 20 minutes from where everybody and a dog is leaking emr across the spectrum.

    More than a pint is deserved!

    1. samzeman
      Thumb Up

      Re: Wow - that's fast!

      I've read up on the science of how they pick out that one particular signal and it's crazy. Seems like even with the best methods, it's so week it shouldn't be detectable, especially inside the Earth's radiation blocking atmosphere stuff.

      1. Stuart 22

        Re: Wow - that's fast!

        El Reg needs to sort its units again. What on earth (or your chosen planetary object) does -168db mean?

        How does that equate to the distance a 40 year old NASA designed fondleslab could see my wifi?

        1. Franco Silver badge

          Re: Wow - that's fast!

          Nothing wrong with the units, although there technically should be a suffix to tell you what is being measured as the decibel scale can be applied to many things.

          Essentially what it is saying is we need a big-ass antenna to detect this very weak signal though.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decibel

        2. Callam McMillan

          Re: Wow - that's fast!

          dBm is power relative to 1mW.

          0dB is 1mW

          for each -3dBm, reduce the relative power by half

          for each -10dBm, reduce the relative power by 10 times.

          1. Tom Paine Silver badge

            Re: Wow - that's fast!

            WAT.

        3. bombastic bob Silver badge
          Devil

          Re: Wow - that's fast!

          I think -168dbm is about the same as a "gnat fart", though -168db would be roughly 1/10^17 [I said 'roughly'] as 'db' is a ratio, but 'dbm' is the log10 of a signal's strength (in milliiwats).

          So I guess if someone can quantify "gnat fart" in milliwatts, then we'll be able to translate -168dbm into "gnat farts".

          I think a gnat's ass is around 0.1 mm [that is mostly a guess, gnats are hard to measure with calipers].

          also, when the noise floor level is hundreds or thousands of times the signal strength, which is actually somewhat common with cell phones, you need some tricky techniques to demodulate it accurately (edit: at the tower, not the phone itself). but yeah, we do that kind of thing pretty well, now.

          one thing worth mentioning - how come nobody said "V'ger" yet?

  9. gypsythief

    "...uses a Solaris workstation running version 8 of the OS"

    Which according to Wikipedia was released in February 2000.

    A few years ago, I was talking to an RAF engineer, who told me that they still used Windows 95 as it was the last version of Windows capable of running the originally-written-in-the-70s code, used for diagnosing and configuring the Tornado's on board systems.

    Is it the same thing here? Are they relying on a 17 year old OS as the only thing that can still run the 40 year old code written to communicate with Voyager?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "...uses a Solaris workstation running version 8 of the OS"

      Is it the same thing here? Are they relying on a 17 year old OS as the only thing that can still run the 40 year old code written to communicate with Voyager?

      Yes, that comes from that almost forgotten era when software was production ready when it was released. That was partially because it was supplied on CDs and they'd otherwise have a massive amount of coasters, which would have gotten them sued by AOL for stealing their business model.

      Sorry, drifted slightly aside there :).

      1. Korev Silver badge

        Re: "...uses a Solaris workstation running version 8 of the OS"

        I know of one scientific software vendor who once posted "faulty" CDs to a customer as they were late finishing the software for a strict deadline, I believe it bought them another week to finish.

        1. Code For Broke

          Re: "...uses a Solaris workstation running version 8 of the OS"

          Overnight shipping, world-wide, has certainly been an option for as long as software on CD has been an option. I don't buy your story.

          1. Korev Silver badge

            Re: "...uses a Solaris workstation running version 8 of the OS"

            Well, it's what happened!

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: "...uses a Solaris workstation running version 8 of the OS"

            Overnight shipping, world-wide, has certainly been an option for as long as software on CD has been an option. I don't buy your story.

            Depends on which overnight you choose. In the colder parts of the world that can buy you *months* :)

  10. phuzz Silver badge
    Boffin

    DSN now

    Slight side track, but if you'd like to know what the Deep Space Network is doing right now go have a look at NASA's DSN Now page.

    It shows all the different dishes around the world, and which spacecraft each one is communicating with.

    It's also visible on the wonderful Space Dashboard, which has all kinds of interesting up-to-date space nerdery :)

    1. samzeman

      Re: DSN now

      This may have been a movie or book I read but I seem to remember that recently, a group of hobbyists got together to piece together the software to communicate with an old probe that had recently become active again.

      Military has no excuse, they have the funding, they should remake the software. Space sector has 2p to its name, so it's fair to say they might not have the resources for a massive new emulator dealie that will, itself, become redundant as soon as the probes using these old protocols die or drift away. (/cry)

      1. MrRimmerSIR!

        Re: DSN now

        I think you are talking about the ISEE-3 Reboot Project.

        1. samzeman

          Re: DSN now

          That's the one, thanks!

          Awesome stuff. I wish I had done that.

  11. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    Every aspect of this is cool, with the exception of the bit about replacing scientists with automation.

    Robots can fuck off. Space is for humans.

    1. samzeman

      Re: Bah!

      Exactly. This is the single field I won't like to get automated. If we're not exploring, and experiencing, and diversifying ourselves, then what's even the point of building up all of this wealth and technological knowledge.

      1. Tom Paine Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: Bah!

        This is what we call "circular reasoning". Hint: consider your starting assumptions.

    2. iron Silver badge

      Re: Bah!

      What do you think all the probes he's communicating with are? I'll give you a clue, there's no people on the Voyagers!

      1. Stevie Silver badge

        Re: Bah!

        Yes, Captain Dense, that was my point.

        No more Space Roombas. People in the High Frontier. What's the point of just looking through a camera? Might as well play video games. Let's get working on people feeling the crunch of the granulated bleach of Mars's "soil" under thier boots and forgetting about arguing over whether to call Pluto a planet or not in favor of actually going for a look at it.

        It's there. Yes it's hard to do. No, Bill Maher, self-proclaimed fiscal expert, doesn't have the last word on whether it is worthwhile or not any more than any other TV pundit does, and he is willfully misreading the impetus behind the push in order to fuel a "bit".

        Besides, it isn't an either/or situation; we can have social programs on Earth *and* Space for Humans. We just have to decide we are going to get serious about national/international bookkeeping instead of pandering to corporations.

        There are solid cultural reasons for going out there that are important no matter the politics of your particular culture at this point in time.

        Too late for me. I'm from the generation that decided to do more with less (aka doing less).

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Bah!

          Irrespective of whatever you said, I have no choice but to upvote you for the term "Space Roombas" :)

  12. teebie

    "when I go for a walk at 3AM and look up at the stars, it is quite special."

    ...because I know that, whatever is up there, and whatever it is shouting at me, I don't have to listen to it, because I'm off work for the day.

    1. Hollerithevo Silver badge

      That's the spirit!

      This is the attitude that gets you great jobs in beautiful places.

  13. Anonymous Noel Coward
    Trollface

    I pity the first human to see images from Uranus...

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Coat

      "I pity the first human to see images from Uranus..."

      encircled by the S.S. Hemorrhoid, the S.S. Dingleball, and the fingers from the 'Goat' constellation

      leaving now...

    2. stephanh

      George's Star? Your ass!

      I kinda suspect that our German friend Bode (who proposed the name "Uranus") was fully aware of its English pronunciation and associated alternative meaning, and intended it as a "take that" against Herschel for calling it "Georgium Sidus" while in brown-nose mode.

    3. cray74
      Gimp

      I pity the first human to see images from Uranus...

      Pity? Entire portions of the internet's economy are dedicated to distributing photos and videos of such.

      1. I3N
        Coat

        And ... the facination in deep space probing ...

  14. Chris 3
    Happy

    Thanks

    A really nice article Simon, thanlks for writing it.

  15. Mage Silver badge
    Pint

    Also

    It's brilliant what the Voyager people have done. I was reading about retirement of someone in their 80s that worked on it since the start.

    "That it remains humanity’s only close encounter with the planet is a testament to the durability of the Voyagers and the outstanding and astounding achievements the missions represent."

    Also how little we spend on space exploration compared to weapons, or even pretty rubbish game/film/TV remakes/sequels.

    1. Tom Paine Silver badge

      Re: Also

      @CarolynPorco (currently imaging PI on Cassini) is a great follow on Twitter for Voyager-related wow-ness.

  16. JeffyPoooh
    Pint

    "Kepler....on its low gain antenna in the mid 160s dbm..."

    dBm (capital 'B').

    And you'd be wanting to include the negative in there as well.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Yeah, well, I call bollocks on the "first to see images of Neptune" claim.

    I worked a JPL on the DSN in the 90s, around the time of the Voyager 2 encounter at Neptune.

    Science data (the pics, among other things.) comes down, goes to the project first, then to the Image Processing Lab, both in Pasadena, and then onward from there. Operators running the ground systems didn't/don't even have access to the science data AFAIK.

    No doubt the image processing was automated and the images could have emerged from the IPL within a few moments of download, but I'd wager plenty of people had a chance to see them first before being sent back out for general consumption.

    And we all saw images coming in "In Real Time" on the TV monitors in the cafeteria and elsewhere around the Lab. And if you want to quibble about people possibly sleeping in some parts of the world when the data was coming in through Canberra, the same can be said for when it was coming in from Madrid and Barstow.

  18. Tom Paine Silver badge

    Oddness

    Thing is, NASA and JPL spacecraft don't downlink images that you can doubleclick and view. There's a whole toolchain needed to process the data into a format suitable for human viewing. As a simple forinstance, many of the imaging devices are "pushbroom" -- that is., a single line of pixels is scanned, followed by the next line, the next line and so on. This comes down in a variety of exotic formats. There's far, far more than you'd ever want to know over on http://www.unmannedspaceflight.com

    See for instance this thread: http://www.unmannedspaceflight.com/index.php?showtopic=8198

    (Far more with all the scripting and C wizardry you can shake a stick on UMSF. Well worth registering if you're interested but READ THE FAQ FIRST.

    All the data's public domain; NASA / JPL make it avaiilable via the PDS if you'd like to have a go. You can still get images from Mars and have them in a postable state quicker than the actual project team if you're good, and lucky, and diligent :)

    PDS: http://pds-imaging.jpl.nasa.gov/search/

    Anyway, I'm not quite calling BS on this guy, but I'd be interested to hear what toolchains he uses / used in 1989.

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