35 years later, Voyager 1 is heading for the stars (Update)

Sep 04, 2012 by Alicia Chang
This artists rendering provided by NASA shows the Voyager spacecraft. Launched in 1977, the twin spacecraft are exploring the edge of the solar system. Thirty-five years after leaving Earth, Voyager 1 is reaching for the stars. Sooner or later, the workhorse spacecraft will bid adieu to the solar system and enter a new realm of space -- the first time a man-made object will have escaped to the other side. (AP Photo/NASA)

Thirty-five years after leaving Earth, Voyager 1 is reaching for the stars.

Sooner or later, the workhorse spacecraft will bid adieu to the solar system and enter a new realm of space—the first time a manmade object will have escaped to the other side.

Perhaps no one on Earth will relish the moment more than 76-year-old Ed Stone, who has toiled on the project from the start.

"We're anxious to get outside and find what's out there," he said.

When NASA's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 first rocketed out of Earth's grip in 1977, no one knew how long they would live. Now, they are the longest-operating spacecraft in history and the most distant, at billions of miles from Earth but in different directions.

Wednesday marks the 35th anniversary of Voyager 1's launch to Jupiter and Saturn. It is now flitting around the fringes of the solar system, which is enveloped in a giant plasma bubble. This hot and turbulent area is created by a stream of charged particles from the sun.

Outside the bubble is a new frontier in the Milky Way—the space between stars. Once it plows through, scientists expect a calmer environment by comparison.

When that would happen is anyone's guess. Voyager 1 is in uncharted celestial territory. One thing is clear: The boundary that separates the solar system and interstellar space is near, but it could take days, months or years to cross that milestone.

Voyager 1 is currently more than 11 billion miles from the sun. Twin Voyager 2, which celebrated its launch anniversary two weeks ago, trails behind at 9 billion miles from the sun.

They're still ticking despite being relics of the early Space Age.

This artists rendering provided by NASA shows the Voyager spacecraft. Thirty-five years after leaving Earth, Voyager 1 is reaching for the stars. Sooner or later, the workhorse spacecraft will bid adieu to the solar system and enter a new realm of space -- the first time a man-made object will have escaped to the other side. (AP Photo/NASA)

Each only has 68 kilobytes of computer memory. To put that in perspective, the smallest iPod—an 8-gigabyte iPod Nano—is 100,000 times more powerful. Each also has an eight-track tape recorder. Today's spacecraft use digital memory.

The Voyagers' original goal was to tour Jupiter and Saturn, and they sent back postcards of Jupiter's big red spot and Saturn's glittery rings. They also beamed home a torrent of discoveries: erupting volcanoes on the Jupiter moon Io; hints of an ocean below the icy surface of Europa, another Jupiter moon; signs of methane rain on the Saturn moon Titan.

Voyager 2 then journeyed to Uranus and Neptune. It remains the only spacecraft to fly by these two outer planets. Voyager 1 used Saturn as a gravitational slingshot to catapult itself toward the edge of the solar system.

"Time after time, Voyager revealed unexpected—kind of counterintuitive—results, which means we have a lot to learn," said Stone, Voyager's chief scientist and a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology.

These days, a handful of engineers diligently listen for the Voyagers from a satellite campus not far from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which built the spacecraft.

The control room, with its cubicles and carpeting, could be mistaken for an insurance office if not for a blue sign overhead that reads "Mission Controller" and a warning on a computer: "Voyager mission critical hardware. Please do not touch!"

There are no full-time scientists left on the mission, but 20 part-timers analyze the data streamed back. Since the spacecraft are so far out, it takes 17 hours for a radio signal from Voyager 1 to travel to Earth. For Voyager 2, it takes about 13 hours.

Cameras aboard the Voyagers were turned off long ago. The nuclear-powered spacecraft, about the size of a subcompact car, still have five instruments to study magnetic fields, cosmic rays and charged particles from the sun known as solar wind. They also carry gold-plated discs containing multilingual greetings, music and pictures—in the off chance that intelligent species come across them.

Since 2004, Voyager 1 has been exploring a region in the bubble at the solar system's edge where the solar wind dramatically slows and heats up. Over the last several months, scientists have seen changes that suggest Voyager 1 is on the verge of crossing over.

When it does, it will be the first spacecraft to explore between the stars. Space observatories such as the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes have long peered past the solar system, but they tend to focus on far-away galaxies.

As ambitious as the Voyager mission is, it was scaled down from a plan to send a quartet of spacecraft to Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto in what was billed as the "grand tour" of the solar system. But the plan was nixed, and scientists settled for the Voyager mission.

American University space policy expert Howard McCurdy said it turned out to be a boon.

They "took the funds and built spacecraft robust enough to visit all four gas giants and keep communicating" beyond the solar system, McCurdy said.

The double missions so far have cost $983 million (€782.15 million) in 1977 dollars, which translates to $3.7 billion (€2.94 billion) now. The spacecraft have enough fuel to last until around 2020.

By that time, scientists hope Voyager will already be floating between the stars.

Explore further: Video gives astronaut's-eye view inside NASA's Orion spacecraft

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User comments : 13

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funnypit
1.7 / 5 (6) Sep 04, 2012
i think it takes more than a few minutes to receive voyager signals considering the distances they have traveled so far,but i like the article. these craft are tough little machines.
gwrede
4.2 / 5 (5) Sep 04, 2012
The article says 17 hours. Which, incidentally, means it is at a distance of 1/500th of a light year.
madsam
5 / 5 (4) Sep 04, 2012
i think it takes more than a few minutes to receive voyager signals considering the distances they have traveled so far


Did you read the article?

"Since the spacecraft are so far out, it takes 17 hours for a radio signal from Voyager 1 to travel to Earth. For Voyager 2, it takes about 13 hours.:
cantdrive85
1.8 / 5 (5) Sep 04, 2012
"which is enveloped in a giant plasma bubble. This hot and turbulent area is created by a stream of charged particles from the sun."

Sure would be nice if they could use the moderately technical term of magnetosphere, at least they acknowledge the plasma. However the "plasma bubble" as they call it, or heliosphere, is the extent of the Sun's electromagnetic influence. The next real test for Voyagers I-II is whether or not they can survive flying through the highly charged double layer ( a region of a great deal of stored electrical energy produced by the Sun) that separates the Sun's influence and the interstellar medium.
Jeddy_Mctedder
1 / 5 (5) Sep 04, 2012
voyager is travelling at At 17.26 km/s ( almost 40k miles an hour) and weighs 1500 pounds.

with a base on the moon for launching a 15 pound micro-space robot----you could easily send out a probe that is going

.01 light speed is about 3000 km/s . I'm thinking we could with great difficulty develop a system to launch objects at 1% of .01c to do 30 km/s . and then have them accelerate slowly to 5% of .01c. to do 150km sec ( almost 9 times the speed of voyager. ) using only basic ion thrusters.

i know it sounds crazy but perhaps one day, we will be able to accelerate objects in space at .01c. that would be nuts. but at that speed . it would only take 400 or so years to reach the closest star. at which point, it would only take us 4 years to receive the signals sent from the probe.

yea-------piont it ----the universe is too big for us. probes are a complete waste of money when they cost in the hundreds of millions.

there is PLENTY OF GOOD SCIENCE to do here on our planet.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (5) Sep 04, 2012
@ cantdrive:

I don't think any astrophysicist expects that. The Voyagers have already passed the termination shock, and the IBEX observations showed that the Sun moves to slowly to have a bow shock. [ http://en.wikiped...iosphere ]

What they say they expect is the observed drop in plasma and magnetic field density described in the article, which should be replaced by a weaker intergalactic field from another direction.

There is also not much energy in these plasmas, considered as energy density. The heliospheric current sheet may be the system's largest structure, but it carries such an utterly dilute current that it can't heat or charge interplanetary dust faster than they irradiate respectively neutralize.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (7) Sep 04, 2012
@ Jeddy Mctedder:

Trolling with the old false dilemma on science? It is boring, it is a trivial logical fact that we can do both, and it is a trivial statistical fact that science pays back and that you can't predict what is useful but that results support each other. These results goes into understanding the solar system formation and history, which has all sorts of outcomes, in my case it is interesting for astrobiology.

You on the other hand suggests megaprojects that would take a considerable part of the planets resources for many years. No sane society will ever try to launch sub-relativistic crafts to other systems like that, especially as we can do so much cheaper science from here.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (1) Sep 04, 2012
"We're anxious to get outside and find what's out there,"
But to be really out there, say half-way to the next star, which is about 4 light years away, y'all will have to wait about 40,000 years.
cantdrive85
2 / 5 (6) Sep 04, 2012
Torbjorn,

Where in their multitude of expectations and assumptions has there been one example of that the data or observations has confirmed said expectations? It has nothing to do with aerodynamic/hydrodynamic bow shocks, once you acknowledge that it is plasma, it is imperative that the expectations be based on electrodynamic interactions, circuit theory, laboratory and magnetospheric physics, and modern plasma theory. As it is plasma, they WILL experience a plasma double layer that separates the plasma of the Sun's environment from the differently charged plasma of the interstellar medium. Any charge differential at all, even a minute differential, is enough to create this structure, something which has been shown over and over in a laboratory environment.

http://public.lan...1992.pdf

http://public.lan...cesI.pdf

cantdrive85
1 / 5 (4) Sep 04, 2012
Your claim of the "termination shock" is more likely the equivalent to the Earth's ionosphere. The Sun's electromagnetic influence will probably extend a proportionally equal distance beyond it's "ionosphere" as Earth's magnetosphere does. The EM force is scalable over many orders of magnitude and the properties we observe one all scales will be similar.
Shootist
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 04, 2012
The Electric Universe!

Hogwash.

cantdrive85
2 / 5 (4) Sep 04, 2012
The Electric Universe!

Hogwash.



The plasma cares little about what you think, it will still adhere to the laws of electromagnetism.
jsdarkdestruction
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 04, 2012
while reality follows the laws of gravity at large scales...

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