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Voyager Scientist Talks Life, Space, Discovery

IOWA CITY, IA (CBS2/FOX28) - In a small room in the Iowa Memorial Union on Monday, UI physics professor and renowned space scientist Don Gurnett made people laugh.

"Who knows what happened in 1957?" Gurnett asked the crowd, and receiving a smattering of "Sputnik" in return. "Pretty good response here. Well, you missed on thing," he said, advancing his PowerPoint slides. "I arrived."

The room filled with more laughter as the crowd was captivated by Gurnett's successes and failures. His chronicles some of the most important discoveries ever made in space -- and they weren't come by easily.

Gurnett was a collaborator on Voyager 1, the first spacecraft to leave our solar system and enter interstellar space, three decades after it was launched, in 2013. It was an achievement decades in the making, and not come by easily in the end. The conditions to get Voyager to the edge of the galaxy come around only once every 179 years. They happened to hit in August of 1977, when scientists sent Voyager 1 hurtling outside of Earth's orbit.

"So I'd like to have you appreciate the pressure under which we work," Gurnett said, to more laughter.

But here in 2014, a ninth grader named Daniel Burgess sat and watched Gurnett speak. Burgess was just selected by Dupont out of more than 9,000 other students to visit the Kennedy Space Center, after winning a science contest.

"I invented a new kind of solar cell, which combines heat generation and electricity generation," Burgess said.

Maybe one day, Burgess said, he'd like to be like Gurnett -- a boy raised in Iowa, who liked to tinker, and who happened to open the right window into space.

"But really, it's just the achievement, the way I see it, of having reached this distance," Gurnett said.

And while Voyager 1's next destination -- the far-away comets that orbit the sun -- is 30,000 years away, with Burgess just a few rows back from Gurnett, maybe that distance isn't so far away.
 
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