The venerable Voyager 1 spacecraft from NASA has reached an important milestone. The Voyager 1 probe was launched 45 years ago, on September 5, 1977, just weeks after its twin, Voyager 2, but quickly outpaced it. The two spacecraft were designed to fly past Jupiter and Saturn while the solar system was aligned in a favorable way. No one expected the spacecraft to be operational more than four decades later. However, the Voyagers are now approaching their 50-year mark in space.
Voyager 1 is currently more than 14.6 billion miles (23.5 billion kilometers) from Earth — more than 157 times the distance between our planet and the sun — and is traveling outward at a speed of 38,000 miles per hour (60,000 kph).
“Today, as both Voyagers explore interstellar space, they are providing humanity with observations of uncharted territory,” Linda Spilker, Voyager’s deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, said in a statement.
Voyager 1 in particular has something to celebrate with this anniversary since NASA recently managed to fix a glitch that had caused the spacecraft to rely on a defunct computer, which led to the probe sending gibberish data home to Earth.
The Voyagers have continued to make amazing discoveries, inspiring a new generation of scientists and engineers. We don’t know how long the mission will last, but we can be certain that the spacecraft will provide even more scientific surprises as they travel farther away from Earth.Suzanne Dodd
Although mission personnel has gotten the spacecraft back on track, they’re still looking into what triggered the switch, according to a NASA statement.
After the 1977 launch, the mission’s milestones came fast. Voyager 1 got its first look at Jupiter in April 1978 and made its closest approach to the massive planet in March 1979. The spacecraft also caught glimpses of Jupiter’s moons, including Io, the strange volcanic surface of which Voyager 1 unveiled.
Then, the probe headed out to Saturn and its largest moon, Titan, making its flyby in November 1979, just over two years after launch. Voyager 1’s detour to catch a closer look at Titan meant it didn’t make any more flybys; its twin Voyager 2 instead continued sailing out to Uranus and Neptune.
Voyager 1 became the most distant human-made object in 1998, according to NASA, and marked 100 times the distance from Earth to the sun in 2006.
In 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, the region beyond the heliosphere, which is the bubble formed by charged particles constantly streaming off the sun and out into space. Beyond the heliosphere, the spacecraft registers far more cosmic rays — fragments of atoms that zip through space — than solar particles.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to directly study how a star, our sun, interacts with the particles and magnetic fields outside our heliosphere,” Spilker added, “helping scientists understand the local neighborhood between the stars, upending some of the theories about this region and providing key information for future missions.”
Although four instruments on the Voyager 1 probe continue to collect data for transmission to Earth, mission personnel anticipate that additional instruments will need to be turned off as time passes and the probe’s nuclear power source deteriorates.
The twin probes will eventually go silent, though they will continue to travel through space for billions of years.
“The Voyagers have continued to make amazing discoveries, inspiring a new generation of scientists and engineers,” said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at JPL, in the same statement. “We don’t know how long the mission will last, but we can be certain that the spacecraft will provide even more scientific surprises as they travel farther away from Earth.”