back to article Space exploitation vs space exploration: Humanity has much to learn from the Voyager probes

It will soon be half a century since NASA's Voyager probes were launched on a tour of the solar system. The reason for their unprecedented longevity is unprecedented, but modern realities mean that we might not see their like again. Dr Garry E Hunt was one of the original imaging team members and tells The Register why he …

  1. Filippo Silver badge

    >"can we really afford to do all these things that go on for 10 – 20 years? [...]"

    Can we afford not to?

    Investiments in pure science are things that can pay, and pay big, bigger than anything, but often only decades in the future. Possibly centuries. Electricity has been a useless toy for a very long time.

    Such dividends don't happen on the time scale of a human's life, and therefore we ignore them. But they do happen on the time scale of a nation's life. Even more on the time scale of humanity itself.

    We keep considering 5-10 years as the longest "long term", and pass on any investment beyond that... that strategy makes sense for people, but isn't it harming the nation's history-scale economic outlook? We do want our society to still be around in a thousand years' time, don't we? 'cause if we do, getting to work now on something that may result in workable asteroid mining, space solar or moon economy a hundred years from now suddenly makes quite a lot of economic sense.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Timescales

      The last few generations have seen innovation come faster and faster. Pop culture trends change on a dime based on "social media" posts. The news cycle keeps getting shorter, and politics doesn't look beyond the next election (as if they'd bother to fix THIS year's budget). Capitalism embodied in the banking/credit card industry wants you to buy today (and pay interest forever). Everything around us is pushing our minds into "NOW NOW NOW", utterly incapable of thinking about tomorrow.

      If we want society to slow down and expand our collective minds into the next century or even millennium, we need a fundamental shift of what society IS. We need to slow our own lives down just to give us time to think. If business and politics won't lead, it's up to us users/consumers/voters to tell them to be quiet for a bit, starting by turning off the 24/7 media. Then maybe businesses and government will get in line.

      (Yeah, right. We are the proles of 1984 -- it won't change until we rise up, and we can't rise unless things change.)

      1. Arthur the cat Silver badge
        Happy

        Re: Timescales

        (Yeah, right. We are the proles of 1984 -- it won't change until we rise up, and we can't rise unless things change.)

        But if you read the appendices of 1984 there's an implication that the proles did rise up and smash the system. Never give up hope.

    2. Gene Cash Silver badge

      "We do want our society to still be around in a thousand years' time, don't we"

      Google "bronze age collapse"

      I won't be around, but I'd be surprised if we last another 150 years.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Google "bronze age collapse"

        Disappointing - it's all about the Eastern Mediterranean are and a little about Central Europe. Nothing further west into Ireland, for instance.

    3. Ian Johnston Silver badge

      Electricity has been a useless toy for a very long time.

      Volta invented the battery in 1800. Michael Faraday made the first electric motor in 1821 and Robert Davidson demonstrated an electric locomotive on the Glasgow - Edinburgh railway another 21 years after that. By the end of the century electric railways, tramways, lighting and motors were common.

      1. Francis Boyle

        The word 'Electricity' was coined by a contemporary of Shakespeare. Stephen Gray built a crude electric telegraph in the early 18th Century. That's at least two centuries of electricity being a useless toy. The thing is you can never know when an idea's time will come so you have no choice but to take a long term view.

        1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

          The word 'Electricity' was coined by a contemporary of Shakespeare.

          And the word electricity comes from ἤλεκτρον, the Greek for amber. The Greeks knew about static electricity and played around with its effects over 2 millennia ago.

    4. pdh

      >>"can we really afford to do all these things that go on for 10 – 20 years? [...]"

      > Can we afford not to?

      Yes, we can afford not to. I admire the Voyager project, but let's be honest: the economic return on investment is likely to be negative. It's still worth doing in my opinion, but asking about ROI for this kind of thing is like asking about ROI for an arts project. ROI is not why we do these things.

      1. Filippo Silver badge

        For maximum clarity:

        I strongly agree that we should be doing these things despite ROI.

        I weakly agree that Voyager, specifically, is unlikely to have a positive ROI - if we look at easily-quantifiable money value alone.

        I strongly disagree, and this is the point I'm trying to make, that just because something "goes on for 10-20 years" or even more, that implies a poor ROI. It implies that the return is a long way off, and highly uncertain, but neither of those adjectives means "low".

        1. ravenviz Silver badge

          Most of life is poor ROI, no need to focus on public projects!,

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            It all seems to depend on what you mean by the "Return" on the "Investment". The Investment is primarily cash, but the Return is many things, not just cash from spin-off developments etc. Knowledge, experience, general improvements in engineers and technology, national pride and patriotism, general public happiness, the surge in people going to univerity and the general upswing in education, much of which can't even be measured, and yet are all positive Returns. It's complicated and most of the above applies very much to the "Space race" and especially the Apollo Program of the past, which cost $billions. I don't think Artemis is generating that sort of RoI. but only the history of the future will tell us if that was a good investment or a boondoggle.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              ROI

              Is a really crude measure of the value of a project - one thing that's becoming more and more brutally obvious in my (public sector) place of employment is in the never ending arguments between do nothing/maintain the status quo/just keep the lights on and do a new thing the cost of "do nothing" is horrendously misunderstood/underestimated.

              "Do nothing" isn't spend nothing and it often turns out to be eye wateringly expensive later on.

              1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                Re: ROI

                "Do nothing" isn't spend nothing and it often turns out to be eye wateringly expensive later on.

                Oh yes! Local "world famous landmark bridge". Not been repainted in years. Now it's rusting away and is going to cost £millions over the next 5 years to put right along with all the associated lane closures into a busy city. All because they "saved" money by not painting it every 5 years or so. And yes, the costs have already spiralled massively because it took them a year to get the money together to do a proper survey and find all the hidden defects.

        2. hoola Silver badge

          For pure science then it is always worth doing.

          The issue we have now is that everything, absolutely everything has to be commercialised with a view to extracting resources continuing to feed teh insatiable demand of humans to convert stuff into waste.

          No other being has done this more efficiently or destructively.

          The entire Amazon rainforest can be cut down, all the Artic ice gone with cities flooded and people will continue to stick their heads in the sand and claim "not my problem".

          Based on current consumption,. destruction and conflict the 150 years suggested earlier looks decidedly optimistic. Mankind still has not understood that you cannot fix everything with technology. By it's very nature technology is a huge part of the problem,

      2. EBG

        Agree

        I want fundamental science to be done as well, but making flakey, if not outright false, claims for it is not sensible. The Faraday line about electricity is ancient history and just doesn't cut it. Just consider that almost all of what practically matters to us - chemistry/biochemistry/materials behaviour - runs at around the 0.1 eV - 1eV regime. CERN has explored physics up to 10 TeV. Way beyond anything that could be technologically applicable.

    5. Richard 12 Silver badge

      5-10 years is short term for people, too

      A mortgage is a 25-35 year investment.

      A pension is 40-50 years.

      A child is the rest of your life.

      Yet businesses seem incapable of thinking beyond 3-5 years, politicians beyond next week and large parts of the stock market beyond five minutes.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: 5-10 years is short term for people, too

        I was thinking exactly that, I'm glad you posted it and saved me doing it :-)

        Us "normal" people are commonly thinking of decades into the future, certainly by the time we reach adulthood, and yet those politicians and business leaders, also humans like the rest of us, at least biologically if not mentally, seem to be incapable of that very same feat.

        1. matjaggard

          Re: 5-10 years is short term for people, too

          I completely agree that we need to invest in long term things but is space exploration really the right thing? It's sexy and all but even with exploration the sea is likely a better option to learn relevant lessons and I'm not convinced exploration is the best area of science to invest in anyway.

          I don't see national pride and patriotism as significantly positive things on their own, they seem to be increasingly linked to xenophobia as far as I can tell.

          1. hoola Silver badge

            Re: 5-10 years is short term for people, too

            Whilst we don't know that much about the sea, what is happening is that anywhere these is a useful resource then it is being harvested with no thought given to the consequences. Look at nodule mining for rare-earth elements. This is a complete and utter disaster but nobody cares because the money is the only thing that matters.

            The beneficiaries of this are the rich countries that are already responsible for most of the consumption and waste occurs.

  2. Mike 137 Silver badge

    " We do want our society to still be around in a thousand years' time, don't we?"

    So far as the historical record can show, no society has lasted anything like a thousand years so far. All that's lasted as long as this to date have been more or less corrupted fragments of past systems and cultural concepts, most often completely misunderstood and subsequently applied out of context. So what makes 'our society' likely to be the exception? And incidentally, which society out of the many current ones is the preferred one for survival?

    1. Filippo Silver badge

      Re: " We do want our society to still be around in a thousand years' time, don't we?"

      >So far as the historical record can show, no society has lasted anything like a thousand years so far.

      It depends on what you mean by "society". It's a fuzzy term. These days, I feel I can safely say that it goes beyond "nation". I'm not sure myself of what exactly I meant by it, but the concept I wanted to express was: we seem to focus a lot on GDP, yet all of our GDP plots seem to have "who gives a shit" as value for all points beyond the 50-years marker or so. But, actually, there will still be people well beyond that marker, yes? People who presumably will be better off, possibly a lot better off, if we make wise very-long-term investments right now?

      Do we just not give a crap, because they're not us? Makes some selfish sense. But it hardly seems like an optimal strategy for a large group that spans many generations.

      >which society out of the many current ones is the preferred one for survival?

      I'm... not sure what you mean here. Ideally, I would like all of them to survive, and possibly new ones to emerge. I don't like the idea of societies being in a zero-sum competition. I've no idea why I would give any other impression, was it the "we" and "our"? Honestly, I was basically thinking "the human society".

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: " We do want our society to still be around in a thousand years' time, don't we?"

        all of our GDP plots seem to have "who gives a shit" as value for all points beyond the 50-years marker or so

        Realistically, projections that get anywhere near that point would be worthless anyway. Predictions tend to fail as soon as the next big unpredictable event comes along.

        1. Filippo Silver badge

          Re: " We do want our society to still be around in a thousand years' time, don't we?"

          Correct, but there's a lot of difference between "we can't make a reliable estimate on this" and "we don't care about this". Sure, it does mean that our very-long-term investments can't be very reliable, but smart investors have had the solution to that problem since stock market existed, and it's not "only invest in things you can easily predict". Just diversify. Fund all kinds of different projects. Some will pay off, and cover the rest.

      2. Mike 137 Silver badge

        Re: " We do want our society to still be around in a thousand years' time, don't we?"

        "It depends on what you mean by "society"."

        Simple. A society (on any scale) is a group of people with common culture, ethics and purposes. Even successful ones typically last not much longer than a few generations from the time they are established because cultures tend to fragment as ethics and purposes evolve.

    2. ldo

      Re: no society has lasted anything like a thousand years so far.

      The ancient Egyptians managed about 3000 years, off and on. The Eastern Roman Empire itself lasted about 1000 years, as an offshoot of the older Roman Empire. China has been a single nation for most of the last 2200 years. The Imperial House of Japan claims a line of continuous descent going back at least 1500 years.

      1. Denarius Silver badge

        Re: no society has lasted anything like a thousand years so far.

        China ? unified inbetween savage civil wars every 300 years or so. See China a Dark History

      2. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        Re: no society has lasted anything like a thousand years so far.

        And Australian Aboriginal society goes back uninterrupted for about 30,000 years ...

      3. ChoHag Silver badge

        Re: no society has lasted anything like a thousand years so far.

        The Egyptians are still there.

        1. ArrZarr Silver badge

          Re: no society has lasted anything like a thousand years so far.

          There is a society in the Vicinity of the Lower Nile*, with people who call themselves Egyptians.

          Before independence, they were part of the British Empire.

          Before The British Empire, they were part of the Ottoman Empire.

          Before the Ottoman Empire, they were part of the Islamic Caliphates.

          Before the Islamic Caliphates, they were part of the Eastern Roman Empire.

          Before the Eastern Roman Empire, they were part of the Roman Empire.

          Before the Roman Empire, they were part of a splinter faction of Alexander's Empire.

          Before they were part of a splinter faction of Alexander's Empire, they were part of Alexander's empire.

          Before they were part of Alexander's Empire, they were part of the Persian empire.

          Before they were part of the Persian Empire, they were ancient Egyptians.

          *By how the Ancient Egyptians measured it

      4. ArrZarr Silver badge

        Re: no society has lasted anything like a thousand years so far.

        Arguably the Romans as a culture lasted 2000ish years from the formation of the republic in 500ish BC to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

        It's very tempting to view the fall of Rome in the late 5th century as the fall of the Romans, but realistically the Eastern Empire were the same culture.

  3. jmch Silver badge
    Pint

    Awe-inspiring....

    Voyagers were both already well into their missions when I joined this Earth and might be producing useful data for a few years more.

    Further than that, given the close-to-zero chances of physically smacking into something in that vast expanse of nothingness up there, it's quite likely they will still be travelling through space when the Sun swallows up the Earth.

    1. ldo

      Re: they will still be travelling through space when the Sun swallows up the Earth.

      True, but only as inert, physical objects—basically, unusually-constructed pieces of matter. If you were to find one, you might think “Hang on! Did some intelligence produce this?” But the odds of anyone finding them in the far future are impossibly remote.

      Who knows what other ex-space-probes from other civilizations are similarly drifting around out there, equally inert and nondescript? We will likely never know.

      1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
        Alien

        Re: they will still be travelling through space when the Sun swallows up the Earth.

        "Who knows what other ex-space-probes from other civilizations are similarly drifting around out there, equally inert and nondescript? We will likely never know."

        Hope they are not like this one.

        https://i.ytimg.com/vi/zprpOeEYZzY/sddefault.jpg

  4. Jedit Silver badge
    Boffin

    "Will the commercial sector be having the same approach?"

    If you ever need an example of a rhetorical question, come right here. We've got a dead billionaire in a crushed tin can down by the Titanic to tell us what approach the commercial sector will take.

  5. Ian Johnston Silver badge

    Hunt notes recent issues with NASA's Artemis program and says, "I wonder whether we would have had some these problems in the old days with NASA working the way it did…"

    <cough> Apollo 1 .... <cough> Apollo 13 ... <cough>

    1. RedGreen925 Bronze badge

      "<cough> Apollo 1 .... <cough> Apollo 13 ... <cough>"

      Forgot the Space Shuttle not once, but twice blown all to hell by their incompetence.

      1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        No, I remembered that but thought it was probably past the glory days of perfection over which rose-tinted glasses were looking.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Mostly Harmless

    I'd prefer the money was spent on a working Cobra Mark III ...

    1. Dizzy Dwarf Bronze badge

      Re: Mostly Harmless

      Right on Commander!

  7. Robin

    Keep on running

    He's looking forward to one more trip to the US to celebrate Voyager's 50th anniversary. "When Voyager's 50th birthday comes up, I think I'd like to be back in JPL," he tells us.

    Will the Voyagers still be running? Perhaps.

    The Voyager probes were launched in the same year in which I was born, so it's like we're having a competition to see which of us lasts longest. Don't fancy my chances to be honest.

    1. Version 1.0 Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Keep on running

      The design and survival of the Voyagers has been a wonderful item in our human improvements and there's the potential to continue working with the implementation and the information that it gives us ... remember how much we learned a few thousand years ago after getting the first stone axes to work well but then discovered that the stone could be crushed and heated to enable us to create a metal axe.

      We're reasonably convinced that there are aliens out there in the universe, so we need to continue to develop and evolve in the way they have been doing!

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Keep on running

        "remember how much we learned a few thousand years ago after getting the first stone axes to work well but then discovered that the stone could be crushed and heated to enable us to create a metal axe."

        And remember how long it was from those first stone tools to learning we could crush the rocks to smelt metals. It was so long we even split it into two eras, Palaeolithic and Neolithic.

  8. Necrohamster Silver badge

    "What's the value to the economy?"

    Knowledge is its own reward.

    Trying to find "value" to the economy will lead to the Musk-ification of space exploration. No thanks.

    1. ldo

      Re: Knowledge is its own reward.

      There is often an unexpected value to some little fact that seemed trivial at the time it was discovered. But the gap between discovery and application can be so great—years, decades, even centuries—that the fact often goes unrecognized that, without that prior piece of research, that later application would not have been possible.

      And then there is serendipity, where you look for one thing and discover another—like Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin. This happens very often in science—way too often for the likings of those who insist on thinking of scientific discovery as some process that can be regularized and codified according to some standard management procedures.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Knowledge is its own reward.

        "And then there is serendipity, where you look for one thing and discover another—like Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin. This happens very often in science—way too often for the likings of those who insist on thinking of scientific discovery as some process that can be regularized and codified according to some standard management procedures."

        Such as the use of "AI" in the search for new drugs/medicines. Effectively modelling trial & error at very high rate. I doubt AI will ever be credited with something like Penicillin because it's modelling molecules/proteins etc, and probably not looking "outside the box".

  9. Sartori

    Voyager Articles

    Thanks for keeping the articles relating to Voyager coming. Whenever I see an article on the probes or an interview with someone who worked on them, it definitely brightens my day.

    I certainly applaud everyone who had anything to do with them, truly inspirational and awe inspiring!

  10. doublerot13

    'what's the value to the economy?'

    People are broke, homelessness is rising, very few can afford a house, the "gig economy" is out of necessity not for fun or beer money...

    Yet we've been well trained to think decisions should be made for the good of the economy? What ****ing economy??

  11. StrangerHereMyself Silver badge

    Land grab

    I believe we're on the dawn of a humongous land-grab in the Solar System by various space-faring nations. China will use the same strategy it's currently exercising in the South China Sea, by building military bases on islands to lay a claim to them.

    This could easily spiral out of control and into interplanetary war.

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      Re: Land grab

      I think interplanetary war is a bit of a stretch. It's going to take a long long time before the MCRN is established...

  12. Pete Sdev Bronze badge
    Alien

    Title lead to disappointment

    For some bizarre reason, I thought the article was going to be about exploiting the asteroid belt, to which I wanted to say: Beltalowda!

    The "Cold" War was the motivation for the previous funding of NASA. It'll take something like China landing on the moon to motivate again. Funding space exploration because it's interesting science that benefits humanity doesn't do it for the holders of the purse strings.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Title lead to disappointment

      "The "Cold" War was the motivation for the previous funding of NASA. It'll take something like China landing on the moon to motivate again. Funding space exploration because it's interesting science that benefits humanity doesn't do it for the holders of the purse strings."

      Sounds like the plot of For All mankind, although it was Russians, not Chinese, on the Moon :-)

      And even in that TV show, NASA was moving more and more commercial.

  13. Ashto5

    Wow

    Just wow

    Everything voyager related just shows the massive ability we had before the cuts

    Thank you to everyone who worked on the Voyager programs

    A gift that keeps on giving

    Live long and prosper V

  14. Binraider Silver badge

    The conquest of space will be for economic, not scientific reasons. A quote written by a far better informed source than I.

    Like it or not, projects like Apollo, Hubble Space Telescope, or Webb, are job creation schemes that happen to have positive outcomes on the subtotal of knowledge. Apollo was gamechanging on the latter in the field of miniaturisation. But that type of project cannot exist off it's own back.

    Anyone pointing at the long flight times to the asteroid belt regarding the economics of space flight would do well to remember that the voyage times to India in the 1700's were of the order of 6 months. Nobody will argue with the profitability of those expeditions and businesses that did that. Ethics, another matter entirely - but different times and all.

    A working He3 Fusion reactor (theoretically much easier than other fusion reactors) makes for a compelling power and propulsion source, through mining the moon. A few of these techs working together, and the economics could align. Billionaires throwing cash at them aren't doing it for the giggles alone.

    Highly recommend Phil Eklund's High Frontier board game exploring the subject. The scientific references alone are worth buying the game for.

    1. Binraider Silver badge

      Oooh, phantom downvotes!

      We didn't sail the Atlantic for giggles; we sailed it to make a fat pile of cash. And so it will be with space.

  15. MrAptronym

    What a tragic read. I think it is really sad how short term and financially driven space has become. It is a trend you see in the rest of science as well.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What's engineering data?

    NASA don't seem to explain this: even after the science data stops, it can still send engineering data. But what's that? "I'm not sensing anything but I'm still getting N watts from the RTG"?

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