LOOKING BACK 40 YEARS
March 5th marked 40 years since the Voyager 1 flyby of Jupiter in 1979. This was a landmark accomplishment in space exploration. The sister craft Voyager 2 performed its Jovian flyby 4 months later, on 8th July.
Jupiter was the first stop in a series of flybys known as the ‘grand tour’. Voyager 1 went on to Saturn in 1980, and Voyager 2 to Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in 1981, 1986 and 1989.
Subsequently, Voyager 1 reached interstellar space in 2012 and Voyager 2 followed in 2018. They are now, respectively, 145AU (22 billion km) and 120AU (18 billion km) from the Sun (1AU is the distance from Earth to the Sun; ~150 million km).
I had been interested in spaceflight from a young age, inspired by the achievements of both the Soviet and the US space programs – from Sputnik’s bleeping orbit to Armstrong’s memorable lunar sound-bite, plus much in between! My childhood was spent in the west Auckland suburban fringes, when night skies were dark and light pollution wasn’t a thing.
The sight of Comet Ikeya-Seki stretched across the early morning sky in 1965 is still vivid in my memory. Another ‘wow’ moment was seeing the rings of Saturn and the star Alpha Centauri revealed as a double star through a local maths teacher’s Newtonian telescope – and being able to clearly read the lettering on the sign which stood outside the newly opened LynnMall shopping centre over 3 km away!
This interest took a back seat over the next decade or so, until I attended an open day at Auckland Observatory highlighting the Voyager 1 Jovian flyby.
It was a different world in 1979. Commodore and Radio Shack dominated the personal computer market, where 16k RAM was standard, dot matrix printers and fax machines were state-of-the-art, and email as we know it was more than a decade away.
Above: Commodore (Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons) and Comet Ikeya-Seki, 1965.
The first information from space missions was in television news broadcasts and daily newspapers. Yes, we had a second paper then, The Auckland Star, before succumbing to competition from evening TV news, advertising and other pressures in 1991.
Later, in-depth, illustrated articles would appear in science magazines and journals
From its opening in 1967, the Observatory was open on just one or two public nights a week, run by volunteers from the Auckland Astronomical Society (AAS). So, open days in the weekend at the Observatory, with knowledgeable folk on hand, provided a valuable boost to understanding these milestone events.
Nowadays we expect immediate access to space events: live video from cameras mounted on rockets during launch into orbit, and live video Q&A with astronauts on the ISS (e.g. with US schools). We also expect to see images from space probe missions appearing ‘as they happen’ – but these of course are never in real time because of the long time-delays of radio signals travelling the millions and billions of kilometres across the Solar System (6 hours from the New Horizons flyby of Ultima Thule!).
The images and information displayed at this open day rekindled my interest, and cemented my lifelong passion for astronomy and space exploration.
The friendly help from the volunteers prompted me to join the AAS. I’ve been a member ever since, have served on their organising committee for many years and was President of the AAS for 8 years during the fundraising and construction of the planetarium, which opened in 1997.
I feel very privileged to have been an Astronomy Educator at Stardome for the past 11½ years. Hopefully, I have helped inspire school children and adult visitors similarly to the passion, effort and enthusiasm shown by the volunteers at Auckland Observatory 40 years ago.
David Britten is retiring from his position as a Stardome Educator later this month. The Stardome Team would like to thank David for his incredible contribution to our education programme over the last decade (and more).
Not only does David share his insights and expertise with school groups, but he also authors many blog posts (like this one), contributes articles to the New Zealand Astronomical Yearbook, is the behind-the-scenes brain for many of our astronomical customer queries and our downloadable education resources, and features on bFM’s live ‘Spaced Out’ segment fortnightly. While you will no longer be seeing David in the Stardome classroom, you will still hear from him as he continues the ‘Spaced Out’ radio segment.