Extreme Space Photography: Voyager’s Cameras
The Voyager probes have been in and out of the headlines over the past few years as they near the interstellar boundary. It is amazing that technology that is nearly forty years old is still able to function in the extremes of space and has sent back some very interesting photos and data about the most remote reaches of the Solar System.
One thing that a lot of people wonder about is what kind of cameras are on the Voyager probes. Are these cameras that you can purchase at the local store? How are they different than the kinds of cameras we have in our homes? Those are the questions we’ll try to tackle today.
The cameras on the Voyager probes are not quite like what you’ll find in a store. These vidicon cameras were specially made to work in the cold vacuum of space and to draw energy from the plant on the Voyager probes. The “camera” is actually two cameras with a variety of filters and lenses as well as a development system and data processing system to relay the photos back to NASA’s JPL. The Imaging Science System on Voyager 1 weighs in at 38.2 kilograms (84 lbs) so it’s probably not anything you’re going to find in a store or be able to carry around with you — unless you’re really strong.
Modern cameras are probably more powerful and have more sensitive light sensors and filters. The lenses on modern cameras are probably higher-quality but would have a lot of problems functioning in outer space. In recent years, camera manufacturers may receive contracts for cameras to go on-board a space mission and they generally have to make adjustments so that the cameras — designed to work on Earth under most circumstances — can withstand the extreme temperature changes, lack of gravity, and radiation found outside the Earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetosphere.
Still, the Voyager probes have continued to send data back to NASA for over thirty-five years now. The information and photos gleaned from these probes have taught us much more about the gas giants and about the outer parts of the Solar System than we had managed to figure out in all of the centuries before. Though the photographic part of Voyager has been shut down due to the lack of light and the need to conserve energy, Voyager continues to act as our “eyes” by showing us, in other ways, what conditions are like at the very edge of our Solar System.
The Voyager series also taught NASA one important lesson: people find space photography fascinating. NASA would later make use of this to help keep the Hubble Space Telescope mission going and to get support for new space telescopes. The images captured by Hubble have permeated the popular culture to such a large extent that any time the US Congress starts talking about cutting funding to it, there is an enormous outcry in support of keeping Hubble going.
– da Bird