IN OTHER WORDS : Lost in space

For 28 years, NASA scientists have been receiving data from the twin Voyager probes that are now nearing the edge of the solar system. The Voyagers achieved their goals in the 1980s, but both can still send highly prized data until they exhaust their plutonium power sources in about 2020. They can, that is, if NASA continues to fund the engineers and scientists who receive and analyze the data. In NASA’s case, the new priority is President Bush’s 2004 commitment to return US astronauts first to the moon and then to Mars. Voyager is not seen as a high priority in a NASA division that has been told to slash its 2006 budget by 29 per cent, from $75 million to $53 million. But scientists believe the loss of Voyager and other such missions would be a significant blow to mankind’s understanding of the solar system.

The Voyagers were launched on a schedule — possible just once every 175 years — when the alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune facilitated the probes’ passage in close proximity to all four planets. They totalled up many discoveries, including 22 moons of the four planets. Like the space telescope Hubble, which NASA also wants to stop servicing, unmanned missions such as Voyager continue to illuminate the universe. Congress should not approve any NASA budget that abandons them. — The Boston Globe