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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. NASA leaders should reject a plan from NASA's Earth-Sun Exploration Division to eliminate the modest $10 million spent on Voyager annually.

The threat to Voyager's funding is what happens when an agency is forced to take on a costly new assignment without getting enough money to pay for it. 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. While the Bush administration made little mention of that plan after it won only tepid support from the public, the project sets NASA's long-term agenda and spending plans.

Voyager -- one of 13 ''extended mission" probes that are still sending data from different points in the solar system -- is not seen as a high priority in a NASA division that has been told to slash its 2006 budget by 29 percent, 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 interaction of the outer edge of the solar system and interstellar space. Relying on just a few such spacecraft for knowledge of how the sun's magnetic field affects the far reaches of the solar system, they contend, would be like trying to understand the oceans with just one or two research buoys.

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 totaled 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.

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