Key fobs and interstellar space

From JPL scientist Rich Terrile:

In everyone’s pocket right now is a computer far more powerful than the one we flew on Voyager, and I don’t mean your cell phone—I mean the key fob that unlocks your car.

These days technology is equated with computer technology. For example, the other day I heard someone talk about bringing chemical engineering and technology together, as if chemical engineering isn’t technology. If technology only means computer technology, then the Voyager probes are very low-tech.

And yet Voyager 1 has left the solar system! (Depending on how you define the solar system.*) It’s the most distant man-made object, about 20 billion kilometers away. It’s still sending back data 38 years after it launched, and is expected to keep doing so for a few more years before its power supply runs too low. Voyager 2 is doing fine as well, though it’s taking longer to leave the solar system. Surely this is a far greater technological achievement than a key fob.

* * *

* Voyager 1 has left the heliosphere, far beyond Pluto, and is said to be in the “interstellar medium.” But it won’t reach the Oort cloud for another 300 years and won’t leave the Oort cloud for 30,000 years.

Source: The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission

5 thoughts on “Key fobs and interstellar space

  1. One of my peeves is this use of the word “technology” to implicitly mean “computer technology” or “electronics technology”. It pains me especially when my peers in this field make such a generalization, I guess because it seems to belie a narrow view.

  2. Amusingly enough, I am not sure our civilization in the 2010’s could achieve the prowess of designing, building and controlling such low-tech probes as it did in the 1970’s.

    The voyager program is an amazing piece of craftsmanship, or τέχνη, to be pendantic. I often think the same about Roman bridges and aquaducts. Old techology probably sits higher in the scale of τέχνη than new technology.

  3. Ziegen: I imagine we have the prowess, but not the will. It’s amazing to look back on the state of technology and the state of the US economy in the 1970’s and realize that was when we launched four probes (two Voyagers and two Pioneers) on their way to leave the solar system.

    I sometimes think of a student centuries from now studying the history of our time. Surely things like the Internet and cell phones came before walking on the moon or sending spacecraft outside the solar system, right?

  4. Having worked on related systems like avionics where total system memory was, once upon a time, limited to 64K and the like, a side effect of having such capable computational engines and lots of memory, in my view, is that people are increasingly sloppy with software design and software itself. Now, I understand that in some circumstances it makes good business sense to trade more hardware in place of more expensive labor time and engineering. But the practice of throwing together imperfectly designed and implemented components to construct systems reminds me of something the late software engineer Edsger Dijkstra wrote about modern software development in general:

    “Sad remark. Since then we have witnessed the proliferation of baroque, ill-defined and, therefore, unstable software systems. Instead of working with a formal tool, which their task requires, many programmers now live in a limbo of folklore, in a vague and slippery world, in which they are never quite sure what the system will do to their programs. Under such regretful circumstances the whole notion of a correct program — let alone a program that has been proved to be correct — becomes void. What the proliferation of such systems has done to the morale of the computing community is more than I can describe. (End of sad remark.)” [EWD, A Discipline of Programming, page 202, 1976.]

    In addition the skills needed to craft excellent software are evaporating, because few people practice it. Sure, probably NASA JPL has lots of engineers that still do this kind of thing, but that’s an isolated case. I also find that there’s diminishing appreciation for the nuances of doing numerical software, including algorithms. From what I understand from senior members at a local chapter of the American Statistical Association even the term “numerical analysis” is not much used any longer, at least in the United States.

    This is too bad, as there are many excellent and new techniques and algorithms which have been developed since the time of Voyager.

  5. Or are we just falling into the “good ol’ days” syndrome, e.g. its never as good today and it was back then? Personally, I do not think our skills nor our will has changed — just refocused. We are doing some great things these days. Yes, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, but I feel that our descendants will say the same thing about us.

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