Despite an apparent lack of interest in space exploration by our government here in the United States, the notion of interstellar travel is an important idea in the public consciousness. Many of us are anxiously awaiting the new Star Trek film — we need our “fix” of a speculative future where humanity lives not on a single world, but on a multitude of different planets and can travel at will between them. Space Travel is part of our culture, and we can’t get enough.
Even as we wait for NASA to regain a nominal ability for manned space exploration with the new (and not particularly creatively named) Space Launch System and Crew Exploration Vehicles, we can find some interest in the fate of our (somewhat dated) unmanned spacecraft that have left, or are about to leave, the confines of our local solar system and have made it into interstellar space. These are the emissaries of our species, and it’s interesting to think about where they are going and what they will encounter.
There are currently five such spacecraft that have reached escape velocity and are on a heading for the unknown regions of deep space beyond the influence of our home star. Two are presumably “dead” and lack the ability to report any information back to us. Three are still functional at some level and can communicate basic telemetry back to Earth, if only we continue to listen. Both Voyager spacecraft are transmitting as is the New Horizons probe that recently left Pluto and headed towards the edges of the known solar system. Listening to their reports is often tedious and can become expensive, but every bit of data that they transmit is new information about a region of space that is almost completely unknown. I hope that our technology continues to improve and allows us to listen to these data streams for as long as possible. Ignoring them would be a crime — a crime that the right-wing partisans in Washington are all-to-ready to commit.