NASA scientist who viewed first voyager images saw something that gave him ‘chills’

"I thought the Caltech students had pulled a prank - but no, it was real."

  • The Voyager spacecraft was the first to beam back images from Jupiter’s moon Io
  • The NASA scientist who was first saw them said it gave him the “chills”
  • They were so unbelievable he thought it was a “prank”

Published on Mar 19, 2024 at 9:22PM (UTC+4)

Last updated on Mar 21, 2024 at 7:11PM (UTC+4)

Edited by Kate Bain

When the Voyager spacecraft first beamed back images from Jupiter’s moon Io, the NASA scientist who was first to view them said they gave him “chills”.

It was billions of miles beyond Earth – and it changed everything.

Alan Cummings was the NASA scientist on the project – and what what he saw in 1979 stayed with him ever since.

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NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory is managed by Caltech research university in Pasadena, California, US.

There, cosmic-ray physicist, Cummings, saw a never-before-seen lunar landscape moon teeming with volcanoes flowing with lava.

I thought the Caltech students had pulled a prank,” Cummings said per Mashable.

“But no, it was real.”

X/National Air and Space Museum

Jupiter’s moon Io, unlike our barren moon, is the most volcanic place in our solar system – volcanoes can be seen erupting in one image.

“It gives me chills, even just now,” admitted.

The two Voyager craft, both launched in 1977, and were built to last five years.

They’ve now been working in space for almost 50 years despite a couple of glitches, which were quickly repaired.

They’re 15 and 12 billion miles away respectively.

X/NASA Voyager

“These are the only spacecraft that have been there,” Cummings said.

However the latest glitch for the ageing spacecraft could be the end for the long mission.

Back in December, NASA reported a problem with the flight data system that its engineers are still trying to remedy.

They can send messages to Voyager 1, but “no science or engineering data is being sent back to Earth.”

While scientists are studying a recent “readout”, hoping to find a solution, scientists are worried.

X/NASA Voyager

It’s thought communication will cut out in the mid-2030s.

The Voyager missions were originally conceived to explore Jupiter and Saturn.

Scientists saw Jupiter’s roiling atmosphere, with vibrant belts of clouds traveling in alternate directions and teeming with Earth-sized storms.

“We were shocked and amazed,” Cummings said.

Besides volcano-blanketed Io, the mission captured views of ice-clad Europa.

Scientists suspect a briny ocean that’s 40 to 100 m (60 to 150 km) deep — sloshes beneath its ice.

Another NASA probe, will soon leave Earth to explore Europa.

Both Voyagers then continued to Saturn capturing it rings in detail and its strange moons.

At this juncture, the Voyager craft took disparate paths through the solar system.

Voyager 1 continued toward the far reaches of the galaxy, while Voyager 2 went to Uranus and Neptune.

Cummings saw Uranus’ icy, grooved moon, Miranda, and Neptune’s bizarre moon, Triton from 3 billion miles away.

Voyager 2 detected extreme surface temperatures of minus 391 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 235 degrees Celsius) but the surface shot out miles-high plumes of icy material from geysers.

In 1990, NASA engineers planned to turn off Voyager 1’s cameras to save power.

But the space agency captured one final group of shots of the faraway planets – much like the moon lander.

Included is a view called the ‘Pale Blue Dot”‘ – a look back at Earth, from 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) away.

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us,” famed cosmologist, Carl Sagan, said.

Both craft have now entered interstellar space, the region between stars.

They’re sending back unprecedented information about radiation in the uncharted area.

“The science data that the Voyagers are returning gets more valuable the farther away from the Sun they go, so we are definitely interested in keeping as many science instruments operating as long as possible,” Linda Spilker, Voyager’s project scientist, said recently.

Cummings hopes the remaining instruments can stay online for another few years before continuing into infinity with its onboard “time capsule”.

It’s “intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials,” NASA explains.

“The Voyager message is carried by a phonograph record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth,” they said.

And NASA continues to amaze with the images its spacecraft send back.

When asked whether the Voyager mission will go on further, Cummings’ answer was simple.

“It will.”

Some of the images in this feature were created using AI.

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