Voyager I, At The Edge Of The Solar System, Finds The Unexpected

Voyager I and II

After more than three decades in space, Voyager I is not only still sending back data to Earth, but it is on the verge of becoming the first man-made object to truly enter interstellar space:

On Thursday, scientists reported that, no, Voyager 1 still had not reached interstellar space, but it had entered a region that no one expected and no one can yet explain, a curious zone that is almost certainly the last layer of our Sun’s empire — technically speaking, the heliosphere. Three papers published in the journal Science describe in detail the sudden and unpredicted changes encountered in the surroundings of Voyager 1, which left Earth about three months after the original “Star Wars” movie was released and is heading for the cosmos at 38,000 miles per hour.

Scientists had expected that Voyager 1 would detect two telltale signs as it passed through the heliosheath, the outermost neighborhood of the solar system, which is thought to abut the heliopause, as the actual boundary is known. Happily, the key instruments on Voyager 1, as well as those on its twin, Voyager 2, are still working after all these years, and its nuclear power source will last until at least 2020.

Last summer, one of the two events occurred, but not the other, leaving scientists perplexed. Scientists had predicted that at the boundary between solar system and interstellar space, the solar wind — a stream of charged particles blown out by the Sun — would fade away, and that Voyager 1 would no longer detect it. That happened.

They also expected that the direction of the magnetic field would change as Voyager 1 emerged from the Sun’s magnetic bubble. That did not.

(…)

“Nature is far more imaginative than we are,” said Stamatios M. Krimigis, a scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory who is the principal investigator of an instrument that records charged particles hitting Voyager 1. Dr. Krimigis is an author of one of the papers in Science.

Last July, the spacecraft — which is roughly 1,600 pounds and would fit inside a cube about 13 feet on each side, according to NASA — observed a momentary dip in the intensity of the solar wind. “It was exciting,” said Edward C. Stone, the project scientist for the two Voyagers. “We had never seen such a drop before. It happened in less than a day. Then five days later, it was back up.”

In mid-August, there was a deeper momentary dip.

Then, on Aug. 25, the solar wind dropped by a factor of more than a thousand, vanishing to imperceptible levels, and it has remained at essentially zero since. At the same time, the number of cosmic rays from outside the solar system jumped by 9.3 percent.

“It looked like we were outside,” Dr. Stone said.

But the magnetic field has steadily, stubbornly pointed in the same direction, indicating that Voyager 1 is still ensconced within the Sun’s magnetic field. Scientists guess that in this region the magnetic fields of the solar system partly connect to those of the surrounding interstellar space, allowing the solar particles to escape. (Charged particles travel along magnetic field lines.) They have named the zone through which Voyager 1 is hurtling the heliosheath depletion region.

“I think it’s clear we do not have a model which explains all of this,” Dr. Stone said.

More  from The Atlantic Wire:

[S]cientists are giving Voyager’s current home a new name — the heliosheath depletion region. As Kelly Oakes writes in a terrific explanation in Scientific American:

Yep, what Voyager’s instruments are now showing us is so odd we need a new name for it. Voyager is, almost literally, pushing the boundaries of our knowledge about the solar system.

Which, if you think about it, is hardly surprising. As Stamatios Krimigis of John Hopkins University, Maryland, and his colleagues write in one of the three papers out today, our ideas about the size and shape of the bubble of plasma we call the heliosphere, created by the solar wind that continuously flows from the sun, are older than the space age.

trioofpapers published in Science today details what scientists know about this new region, including two temporary shifts in the magnetic field data that occurred on May 29 and September 26 of last year, both times reverting to the data associated with our heliosphere (the bubble of solar winds emanating from our sun).

Voyager 1 launched in 1977 and has been traveling at astounding speeds for nearly 36 years (around 38,000 miles per hour currently). It is now more than11 billion miles away from the sun. As we wait for it to reach its next and perhaps final frontier, scientists don’t have a clear idea of what to expect. “I mean this is the first time any spacecraft has been there,” Voyager project scientist Ed Stone of Caltech said to me last year.

According some quick Google searching, the total cost of the Voyager program, and that would appear to include both Voyager I and Voyager II has been roughly $250,000,000 over 36 years. During that time, they’ve encountered Jupiter and many of its significant moons, Saturn and its moons, Neptune and its moons, and Uranus and its moons. Now, Voyager I has apparently discovered something scientists didn’t expect to find at all at the edge of our Solar System. In terms of pure science, we’ve arguably gotten more from these two small unmanned craft than we have from the manned space program itself. That’s not too shabby.

Image via NASA

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, Science & Technology
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. anjin-san says:

    $250,000,000

    Voyager has indeed produced an amazing ROI. It’s kind of hard to understand why NASA is having to beg for fairly trivial amounts of money these days.




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  2. JKB says:

    @anjin-san:

    Well, we are broke. That’s what you call it when you have to borrow every year to meet your obligations. If we only had to borrow one occasion then there would be “fairly trivial amounts of money” but since we have to borrow day in and day out, every amount of money is significant.

    If you want “trivial amounts of money” then we need to get a hold on regulation. Some regulation is beneficial but a quantitative study of the cost indicates that the U.S. GDP would be 3 times higher without it. That’s a pretty steep cost of big government.




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  3. John Peabody says:

    It can’t be all that significant- how can there be any useful science designed before cell phones, common internet, and the WB?




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  4. JKB says:

    @John Peabody:

    So there was a consensus among scientists about what would happen when Voyager got to the outer limits of the Solar System? But this opinion turned out to be wrong in part? And the scientists, instead of ignoring the failure of their predictions, are looking into the the new and actual data all the while developing new opinions about what is happening?

    That’s crazy. Everyone knows when there is a scientific consensus that the science is settled and it doesn’t matter what happens in reality.




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  5. Anderson says:

    JKB: which is why we continue to learn our physics from Aristotle.

    Your science is as confused as your economics.




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  6. Vast Variety says:

    The manned space program has given us a far greater return on our investment than the Voyager program has or ever will.




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  7. Rafer Janders says:

    @JKB:

    Well, we are broke.

    No, we are not.

    That’s what you call it when you have to borrow every year to meet your obligations.

    By that standard, we’ve been broke continuously since 1776. By that standard, every large company in the US is broke, since virtually all companies take out bank loans, issue bonds, and engage in other debt techniques to finance ongoing operations. By that standard, every household with a mortgage, every individual with a credit card, is broke.




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  8. Rob in CT says:

    quantitative study of the cost indicates that the U.S. GDP would be 3 times higher without it

    Hahahahahahahahahaha! Yeah, right!

    I’m sure that if you gutted every regulation in existence, GDP would blip up. The social costs of the loss of those regs would be felt down the road, but hey, why not chase some more short-term gains at the expense of the long term! It’s the American way! But no f*cking way does GDP triple. That’s so completely absurd that I have to question whether you are capable of putting your own shoes on in the morning.




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  9. Axel Kassel says:

    “Then, on Aug. 25, the solar wind dropped by a factor of more than a thousand, vanishing to imperceptible levels, and it has remained at essentially zero since.”

    Actually, it only needed to drop by a factor of 1 to reach zero.




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  10. Sam Malone says:

    Hahahahahaha…
    JKB links to a think tank that calls itself non-partisan…but of course promotes libertarian and free market ideas…their words not mine. Yes, libertarian ideas are completely non-partisan.
    You bonehead…we are not even close to broke. Saying so shows your complete lack of understanding of economics.
    As for regulation…sure…eliminate all regulation and let’s live in the wild west. The Koch Brothers poison and kill people and do business with our enemies when they are regulated. How would they behave if they were not regulated at all?
    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-10-02/koch-brothers-flout-law-getting-richer-with-secret-iran-sales.html
    What a maroon.




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  11. John H says:

    Axel – the definition of a factor is a number that divides another number into whole parts. 4 is a factor of 12, for example. As it is loosely used the word means any number that divides some other number, even if a whole number does not result. So in this case the original amount was divided by a number greater than 1000. If the factor used were 1, as you suggest, you would divide the original amount by 1, and get the original amount as a result, not zero.




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  12. john personna says:

    Perhaps scientists could make a measured judgement on the ROI of future plans, unmanned versus manned, but the political sphere has always weighted things differently.

    Many are correct above to say that small (and probably) good projects can’t get funding.

    At the same time we have absolutely crazy things, like manned mars missions and permanent moon bases.

    Politicians play to “national greatness” themes, and do not weigh science.




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  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @JKB:

    @John Peabody:

    So there was a consensus among scientists about what would happen when Voyager got to the outer limits of the Solar System?

    ZING! That went right over your head.




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  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Also, the July National Geographic has a couple of articles some may want to read. A great shorty about the Curiosity rover, and one on the Solar system.

    Both are worth reading.




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  15. Woody says:

    @Rob in CT: Sure, without “government regulations” we would find life going to heck in a handbag. Anyone who believe government is the answer to anything, even science, are the true maroons. The same people you rail against like the Kochs or even Soros for those on the right are from the exact same ground that writes, implements, and enforces those many precious regulations you apparently cherish.

    Face it just as government corruption has done with science in terms of how we now base our “scientific facts” on simulations and terribly faulty models that are hardly ever correct, that same corruptions has warped and perverted the free economy and made it possible for the same class of people to almost lock down and eliminate competition from any new upstart companies.

    The Voyager program is from an era in the Space program back when science was open and ventured forth without a hard fast preconceived idea of what to expect to find and when something was discovered it immediately added to what was previously known and didn’t require a fight against the consensus. The first reaction seems to be to immediately question what was discovered especially when it runs counter to what was preconceived by the consensus.

    While it is smaller and more easily measured, the ROI on Voyager, the manned space program gave us so much more in both science and by-products that we now use everyday without even knowing that it is hard to measure and to quantify.




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  16. Andre Kenji says:

    @anjin-san:

    It’s kind of hard to understand why NASA is having to beg for fairly trivial amounts of money these days.

    That´s the problem of NASA and most space agencies. It´s politically very easy to get money for manned missions, that are, mostly useless or that have a low cost benefit(Many analysts thought that the Space Shuttle was a boondoggle, but many people and politicians attacked it´s end).

    The real problem was to get money for the unmanned missions, the missions that are really important for scientists. Voyager only managed to get funding because they inserted that golden discs that no one will ever find – the original plan was to use alignment of the outer planets(Alignment that´s only going to repeat in 150 years) and send four spaceships to study these planets. That was reduced to only two spaceships.




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  17. @anjin-san:

    Voyager has indeed produced an amazing ROI

    Am I the only one who gets irritated by the Orwellian misuse of financial terms to pretend spending wasn’t spending? As interesting as the discovery of this new region is, it’s not like the US taxpayers are going to get a check as a result of this, so to describe a scientific breakthrough as an investment return is just bizarre.




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  18. john personna says:

    @Woody:

    Congratulations. That was completely disconnected from reality.

    Consider:

    NOAA says GOP’s proposed satellite funding cuts could halve accuracy of precipitation forecasts

    Who doesn’t want to know simple answers?




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  19. Franklin says:

    Sure it cost some money to build, but I’m still stunned that the Voyager probes *still* frickin’ work, even after being subjected to launches, radiation, magnetic fields, etc.!

    In the mean time, every cheap plastic piece of shit I buy from China breaks after three days …




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  20. Andre Kenji says:

    @Woody:

    The Voyager program is from an era in the Space program back when science was open and ventured forth without a hard fast preconceived idea of what to expect to find and when something was discovered it immediately added to what was previously known and didn’t require a fight against the consensus.

    The Voyager program is a downsized version of a more ambitious program. The idea was to use the alignment of the outer planets and then send four spaceships Voyager only managed to get their funding because a young astronomer called Carl Sagan began a public relationship campaign and because they inserted that golden discs, that no one will ever find, on the spaceships.




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  21. Sam Malone says:

    @ John Personna…
    As some genius Republican said;

    Why do we need NOAA when we have the Weather Channel?




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  22. Rob in CT says:

    @Woody:

    Woody,

    I not reflexively in favor of every regulation. They should be subjected to rational cost-benefit analysis. It’s a perfectly fair subject of debate.

    I was laughing at the idea that removing all regs would triple – TRIPLE – GDP, and pointing out there would be downside effects that wouldn’t show up in GDP numbers. Of course this makes me a slavish “statist” or somesuch, I know.

    Face it just as government corruption has done with science in terms of how we now base our “scientific facts” on simulations

    Ah, I see. Global Warming Denier, eh? Okie dokie.




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  23. @Franklin:

    If you paid $250 million for whatever the cheap plastic shit was, I’m betting it would have lasted a lot longer too.




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  24. stonetools says:

    The Voyager mission is one of NASA’s triumphs, and it’s still amazing that it is still paying dividends, 30 odd years later.
    Always amusing how libertarians and conservatives LOOOVE NASA, a government space program that has nothing to do with the “night-watchman” role which government should be limited to.
    As a liberal with an expansive view of government I have no problem justifying NASA’s role as a legitimate government investment in science and the future, but libertarians should be decrying NASA as wasteful government spending beyond the proper objectives of government, which should be national defense and law enforcement functions .Any libertarians or conservatives want to chime in on why government should be funding NASA?




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  25. stonetools says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    voyager only managed to get their funding because a young astronomer called Carl Sagan began a public relationship campaign and because they inserted that golden discs, that no one will ever find, on the spaceships.

    I for one still have hope that SOMEONE will find those discs. Hope they’ll be peaceful.




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  26. Tillman says:

    @Stormy Dragon: But, but it makes you seem hip and trendy!




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  27. Andre Kenji says:

    @stonetools:

    I for one still have hope that SOMEONE will find those discs. Hope they’ll be peaceful.

    I think that considering the distance between stars and that fact that many stars do not seem to have planets in their habitable zones It´s probable to say that no one will ever find them.




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  28. anjin-san says:

    @ Stormy

    it’s not like the US taxpayers are going to get a check as a result of this, so to describe a scientific breakthrough as an investment return is just bizarre.

    Life is more than just money. Countless generations have lived and died looking at the sky and wondering. We get to know. To me, that is a gift beyond price.

    And of course, some of us like to look to the future and the opportunities that will be created by moving out into the solar system on a serious basis. We are, after all, trashing this planet pretty quickly.

    We paid what, six trillion to turn Iraq into a pro Iran state? I think money spent on NASA is money well spent.




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  29. @anjin-san:

    Life is more than just money.

    Which is why trying to describe everything as a financial instrument as though that is the only justification for doing anything is so weird.

    I’m not objecting to the money on spent on Voyager. But we can be adult enough about it to say “I think the $250 million was well spent in light of the continuing scientific information we’re collecting”, rather that trying to pretend NASA is some sort of weird mutual fund and we can all retire a week earlier because we found out about Heliosphere depletion.




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  30. anjin-san says:

    @ Stormy Dragon

    Well, I wrote that comment in the middle of the night during a bout of insomnia – did not put a great deal of thought into the wording. Now you are churning out nonsense like this:

    pretend NASA is some sort of weird mutual fund and we can all retire a week earlier because we found out about Heliosphere depletion.

    It’s a scientific mission. We have gotten a huge amount of science from it, across decades and billions of miles. It’s going where none have gone before. We built it to learn things, and we have a vast return in knowledge on our investment. If you get something out of thinking that I have that somehow confused with my 401K, be my guest.




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  31. @anjin-san:

    It’s not just you though, we also have stonetools talking about how it’s “still paying dividends”. This is an increasingly common strategy in politics, on both sides: talking about proposed spending as though it’s an investment vehicle. It’s easy to see why this is done. If you’re investing, you’re gonna get back more than you spent, so you don’t actually have to justify the costs of the program.

    But I find it annoying. If the spending is a good idea, it can be justified as spending, rather than trying to pretend it’s another free lunch.




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  32. Sam Malone says:

    “…If the spending is a good idea, it can be justified as spending…”

    Well yeah…the spending for Voyager is justified by the return, increased knowledge and understanding of our universe, on our investment, or spending. Return doesn’t have to be financial. Cost/Benefit – the benefit doesn’t have to be monetary.




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  33. anjin-san says:

    @ Stormy

    rather than trying to pretend it’s another free lunch.

    Ummm. Where did I do that? Space exploration is expensive, though I would argue that compared to say, tax breaks for wildly profitable oil companies, it’s a very sound way to spend some of our money. Compared to quite a few things the government spends on its sound way to spend money.

    so you don’t actually have to justify the costs of the program.

    Personally, I am quite prepared to argue that the costs of the space program are justified.

    If you want to have a bee in your bonnet about semantics, you are free to do so. At this point, I am kinda bored with it. Tell you what though, I am going to be hanging around with a couple of astronauts on Saturday. If you like, I could pass your concerns along to them.




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  34. al-Ameda says:

    @anjin-san:

    Voyager has indeed produced an amazing ROI. It’s kind of hard to understand why NASA is having to beg for fairly trivial amounts of money these days.

    Consider what we’re dealing with these days- a Republican Party that is so concerned about deficit-spending that it wants to spend billions of dollars on a border enforcement program for a problem that is currently NOT a problem.




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  35. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    Voyager only managed to get funding because they inserted that golden discs that no one will ever find –

    Three words: Star Trek I.




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  36. Kari Q says:

    I love NASA as much as (and possibly more than) your average space science loving nerd, but to be perfectly honest one of the reasons NASA has been having a hard time getting funding lately is because they are not really sure what they want to do. There’s lots of ideas there; man for man, I think NASA employees are more intelligent and creative than any other organization, public or private. But the management has not given the agency the direction and goal setting that any organization needs to develop those ideas into proposals that might actually earn funding.




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  37. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    it’s not like the US taxpayers are going to get a check as a result of this, so to describe a scientific breakthrough as an investment return is just bizarre.

    Yeah, nobody ever got a return on the discovery radio waves or x-rays or nuclear energy or…..

    Why bother.




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  38. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Rob in CT:

    I was laughing at the idea that removing all regs would triple – TRIPLE – GDP, and pointing out there would be downside effects that wouldn’t show up in GDP numbers.

    Correction: A fair number of those downside effects would in fact depress GDP. Ooooopps, did I just commit a heresy?




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  39. anjin-san says:

    @ Kari Q

    I would argue that NASA has a pretty good idea of where it wants to go and what it wants to do. IMO, the fuzziness is coming more from DC.

    Part of the problem is that, like everything else, NASA funding has become highly politicised along partisan lines. Republicans were mad when Omama cancelled the Constellation program, which was associated with Bush. Now they are busy trying to gain more control over NASA while lessening White House influence.

    Personally, I don’t see a lot of sense in lunar landing missions like the proposed Constellation lunar missions in the near future. Been there, done that. The SLS program makes sense to me. After a 40 year break, get back in the business of manned missions into deep space. The idea of a L2 station of some sort appeals to me. Continuing the handoff of LEO travel to the private sector makes sense.

    I’m not seeing where opposition to the asteroid mission by house Republicans is coming from, aside from the fact that it is a signature Obama program. If an asteroid is headed for earth, I would like to be able to do something about it. The long term economic potential for exploiting asteroid resources could be vast, and we need more economic justification for space travel. This seems like a good place to look for it.

    Space Launch System Overview

    SLS website




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  40. @anjin-san:

    It’s not a space thing. I’m just as annoyed when a Republican talks about the need to “invest in Middle East democracy” or the “dividends of financing clean coal technology”.

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Yeah, nobody ever got a return on the discovery radio waves or x-rays or nuclear energy or…..

    Which is the other problem with the “spending as investment” rhetoric. While the costs of the “investment” are always socialized, the benefits are usually not. Is making taxpayers to shell out millions to support nuclear energy research so that Jack Welch can become a billionaire selling reactors really an investment? Or is just cronyism gussied up to look nicer?




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  41. anjin-san says:

    @ Stormy Dragon

    We all have our pet peeves, and you are certainly entitled to yours. That being said, you should not assume that people do not understand how funding for an agency such as NASA works, or what the benefits of their work are and are not, simply because they way they use language annoys you.




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  42. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kari Q:

    But the management has not given the agency the direction and goal setting that any organization needs to develop those ideas into proposals that might actually earn funding.

    You mean the management that is driven by politics? That changes every 4 or 8 years? I don’t blame NASA for the schizophrenic policies that are forced upon them by every President with Kennedy-esque visions of themselves (and let’s face it, they all do).




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  43. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Which is the other problem with the “spending as investment” rhetoric. While the costs of the “investment” are always socialized, the benefits are usually not. Is making taxpayers to shell out millions to support nuclear energy research so that Jack Welch can become a billionaire selling reactors really an investment?

    So, you’re saying that your average taxpayer gets no benefit from their cell phone? Or their car? Or their weather reports? Tornado warnings? I could go on for ever but I think you get my point. The research was not conducted so that Jack Welch could become a billionaire. The fact that you can’t tell the difference between societal benefits and personal gains tells me you are a very confused person.




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  44. Andre Kenji says:

    @Kari Q:

    I love NASA as much as (and possibly more than) your average space science loving nerd, but to be perfectly honest one of the reasons NASA has been having a hard time getting funding lately is because they are not really sure what they want to do

    No, the problem is that people don´t know what they want from space exploration. Most people thinks about manned missions and only manned missions when they think about space exploration, Most manned missions offers little scientific return, and they require a lot of capital, not only monetary but also human capital – the Space Shuttle was a enormous risk to the lives of astronauts.

    I think that people at NASA would prefer to focus on unmanned missions, but they know that they have to at least talk about manned missions to keep their funding.




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  45. anjin-san says:

    @ al-Ameda

    This will be a fun event on Sat.

    http://thespacestationca.org/special_events.shtml

    Where was something like this when I was growing up? Our hangout in jr. high school was literally next door.




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  46. @OzarkHillbilly:

    So you’ve got no problem with political connected billionaires using the government to take money from average taxpayers to finance their latest money making scheme as long as we get fancy new gadgets to play with from time to time?




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  47. Kari Q says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Oh, that’s definitely part of the problem, no doubt. But even below that level there was, for many years, uncertainty about what should be asked for, what their direction should be, what their purpose was. It caused the agency to go through an extended period of drift.

    The tendency of presidents to come out and call for sweeping goals (usually unattainable under the best of circumstances, always unattainable under the funding allowed, and rarely serious to begin with) has hurt them, too. But some of the wounds were certainly self-inflicted.




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  48. george says:

    @JKB:

    Well, we are broke. That’s what you call it when you have to borrow every year to meet your obligations. If we only had to borrow one occasion then there would be “fairly trivial amounts of money” but since we have to borrow day in and day out, every amount of money is significant.

    But we weren’t too broke to start a war in Iraq, or to keep up overseas bases over a good portion of the globe, or to bail out Wall Street.

    Broke seems like a very plastic term.




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  49. george says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Yeah, nobody ever got a return on the discovery radio waves or x-rays or nuclear energy or…..

    Why bother.

    Its all been downhill since Newton (government funded university bloke).

    🙂




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  50. pdmd says:

    @stonetools:
    The discs in fact may be found. My theory is that there exists a interstellar silence unlike solar-helio space noise. If there is an intelligent life form that listens and knows (detects) when a foreign matter enters interstellar space and can localize that entry: Earth will no longer enjoy it’s helio-immunostellar stealth existence. As Hawking theorized perhaps we don’t want them to know we exist after all.




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