NASA’s Voyager Reaches 40th Year: Why It’s An Important Solar System Probe

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Voyager 1 and 2 missions. And it’s a feat that remains unparalleled, where the two spacecraft toured the four worlds of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the 1970s and 1980s.

The milestone, which takes place on Sept. 5 and Aug. 20, highlights the value of the longstanding Voyager mission despite its remarkable distance from Earth. It is, for instance, still in contact with NASA and transmitting important data back to the planet.

Mission History And Achievements

“[The Voyager spacecrafts] have educated us to the unknown wonders of the universe and truly inspired humanity to continue to explore our solar system and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), in a statement.

Prior to its launch, humans were having a fuzzy picture of the outer solar system. Pioneer 10 and 11 offered better Jupiter and Saturn views but still very little was known about them or their moons, Ars Technica reported. There was nearly nothing known about Uranus and Neptune.

Several things could be noted of the mission, including U.S. President Richard Nixon initially authorizing only a probe of two planets, as well as Voyager 2’s almost disaster of getting lost during its turbulent liftoff.

But deemed the Apollo program of robotic spaceflight, the Voyager mission masterfully revealed complex aspects of planets and their moon systems, including the icy Europa and methane sea-laden Titan.

Today, many of the principal scientists involved in it, except for Carl Sagan who died back in 1996, are alive and could tell their first-hand experiences involving the iconic exploration.

The Voyager boasts a roster of accomplishments that is all its own, Futurism noted. In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first and only probe to have entered interstellar space, while Voyager 2 is the only one to have explored all four of the gas giants in our solar system.

They ushered in other important missions including the Galileo and Juno missions, the Cassini-Huygens mission, and the New Horizons mission.

These Voyager missions also carry a special cargo called the Golden Record — a mix of pictures, sounds, and messages that are telling of Earth and the history of its human civilization. It was created to serve as a time capsule or message to any civilization that could potentially recover them. At the time, Sagan had only a few weeks to make the selections for the phonograph of human sounds.

Hopes And Prospects

Today, Voyager 1 is around 13 billion miles from Earth, traveling northward out of the planets' plane and into vast interstellar space. It continues to beam back information on cosmic rays.

Meanwhile, Voyager 2 is around 11 billion miles from our home planet and is venturing south of the planets’ plane.

It is anticipated to enter interstellar space in a couple of years, a time when both probes will be able to sample interstellar medium to inform us of the magnetic environment encapsulating our system.

If the two crafts manage to avoid deadly collisions and are able to survive interstellar space, they are likely to keep doing their mission until after humanity is gone. They could continue on their trajectories at the current speed of over 30,000 miles per hour, completing an orbit within the Milky Way every 225 million years.

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