Voyager 1's flyby of the planet Saturn promises to be a close encounter of the most spectacualr king. Already the planetary probe is sending back to Earth awe-inspiring photographs of the distant planet and its magnificent rings. On Wednesday, barring any unforeseen difficulties, Voyager will come within 2,500 miles of Saturn's great moon Titan and in the process provide scientists with new information on the temperatures and chemical composition of Saturn and its many moons. Still millions of miles from the outer planet, Voyager has discovered three new moons, the newest one believed to influence and perhaps even control the outer edge of the ring's boundary.
By the time Voyager 1, launched in 1977, completes its mission, it will have shed vast new light on the size of the particles that make up Saturn's mysterious rings, which are now known to include as many as 100 small ringlets. But however bright its success, the Voyager mission cannot shake an unmistakable shadow -- that it represents the start of the final stage of the US planetary program. Except for a companion Voyager 2 flyby of Saturn set for next August, the US currently has no other major planetary probes on the drawing board.
American planetary scientists understandably are concerned at the apparent official lack of interest in Washington in recent administrations in furthering US space research. Indifference to the need to look beyond the space shuttle to be launched next spring is reflected in the rather meager budgets approved for NASA in recent years. This, despiete the fact that most proposals for new planetary probes -- to survey the Moon's resources, map the globe of Venus, or send a spacecraft to rendezvous with Halley's comet in 1986 -- would not require inordinately large expenditures or vast new technology.
Meanwhile, other nations, the Soviet Union in particular, continue to press ahead with their own space programs. The European Space Agency, Japan, and the Soviets plan their own, once-in-a-lifetime investigation of Halley's Comet, for instance -- although none will carry the instrumentation or conduct as thorough a study as would the proposed US mission. In this connection it strikes us as wasteful for the Western nations not to conduct one joint mission, rather then three costly individual ones, to study the comet. In any case, because of the long lead time needed to develop such a mission, the US will have to include Halley's Comet in the 1982 space budget or scrap it altogether.
It will be up to the Reagan administration, as well as Congress and succeeding administrations, to keep a measured, well-thought- out space program going from year to year. The spinoffs of past space exploration have brought advances in computer technology, electronics, and a host of other fields. Future probes are expected to bring breadkthroughs in the study of weather, geology, and oceans which will help society cope with energy, food, and environmental problems. Futher knowledge will also be needed for suc time as a shrinking world begins living, working, farming in space.
Voyager in itself has expanded our knowledge. For instance, in its flyby of Jupiter, Voyager discovered a faint ring around the solar system's largest planet. It also discovered volcano-like eruptions on one of Jupiter's moons, the first evidence that volcanic activity exists elsewhere in the solar system.
Voyager 1 should serve as a reminder of how much we on Earth have yet to learn about our neighbors in the universe -- and, for that matter, about our own small planet. Saturn should be a new beginning -- not an end -- of America's planetary exploration.