Voyager spacecraft still reaching for the stars and setting records after 40 years

August 1, 2017, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
An artist concept depicting one of NASA's twin Voyager spacecraft. Humanity's farthest and longest-lived spacecraft are celebrating 40 years in August and September 2017. Credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Humanity's farthest and longest-lived spacecraft, Voyager 1 and 2, achieve 40 years of operation and exploration this August and September. Despite their vast distance, they continue to communicate with NASA daily, still probing the final frontier.

Their story has not only impacted generations of current and future scientists and engineers, but also Earth's culture, including film, art and music. Each spacecraft carries a Golden Record of Earth sounds, pictures and messages. Since the spacecraft could last billions of years, these circular time capsules could one day be the only traces of human civilization.

"I believe that few missions can ever match the achievements of the Voyager spacecraft during their four decades of exploration," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA Headquarters. "They have educated us to the unknown wonders of the universe and truly inspired humanity to continue to explore our solar system and beyond."

The Voyagers have set numerous records in their unparalleled journeys. In 2012, Voyager 1, which launched on Sept. 5, 1977, became the only spacecraft to have entered interstellar space. Voyager 2, launched on Aug. 20, 1977, is the only spacecraft to have flown by all four outer planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Their numerous planetary encounters include discovering the first active volcanoes beyond Earth, on Jupiter's moon Io; hints of a subsurface ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa; the most Earth-like atmosphere in the solar system, on Saturn's moon Titan; the jumbled-up, icy moon Miranda at Uranus; and icy-cold geysers on Neptune's moon Triton.

Though the spacecraft have left the planets far behind—and neither will come remotely close to another star for 40,000 years—the two probes still send back observations about conditions where our Sun's influence diminishes and interstellar space begins.

Voyager 2 was launched on August 20, 1977, from the NASA Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida, propelled into space on a Titan/Centaur rocket. Credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Voyager 1, now almost 13 billion miles from Earth, travels through interstellar space northward out of the plane of the planets. The probe has informed researchers that cosmic rays, atomic nuclei accelerated to nearly the speed of light, are as much as four times more abundant in interstellar space than in the vicinity of Earth. This means the heliosphere, the bubble-like volume containing our solar system's planets and solar wind, effectively acts as a radiation shield for the planets. Voyager 1 also hinted that the magnetic field of the local is wrapped around the heliosphere.

Voyager 2, now almost 11 billion miles from Earth, travels south and is expected to enter interstellar space in the next few years. The different locations of the two Voyagers allow scientists to compare right now two regions of space where the heliosphere interacts with the surrounding interstellar medium using instruments that measure charged particles, magnetic fields, low-frequency radio waves and solar wind plasma. Once Voyager 2 crosses into the interstellar medium, they will also be able to sample the medium from two different locations simultaneously.

"None of us knew, when we launched 40 years ago, that anything would still be working, and continuing on this pioneering journey," said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at Caltech in Pasadena, California. "The most exciting thing they find in the next five years is likely to be something that we didn't know was out there to be discovered."

The twin Voyagers have been cosmic overachievers, thanks to the foresight of mission designers. By preparing for the radiation environment at Jupiter, the harshest of all planets in our solar system, the spacecraft were well equipped for their subsequent journeys. Both Voyagers carry redundant systems that allow the spacecraft to switch to backup systems autonomously when necessary, as well as long-lasting power supplies. Each Voyager has three radioisotope thermoelectric generators, devices that use the heat energy generated from the decay of plutonium-238—only half of it will be gone after 88 years.

Space is almost empty, so the Voyagers are not at a significant level of risk of bombardment by large objects. However, Voyager 1's interstellar space environment is not a complete void. It's filled with clouds of dilute material remaining from stars that exploded as supernovae millions of years ago. This material doesn't pose a danger to the spacecraft, but is a key part of the environment that the Voyager mission is helping scientists study and characterize.

This true-color simulated view of Jupiter is composed of 4 images taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on December 7, 2000. To illustrate what Jupiter would have looked like if the cameras had a field-of-view large enough to capture the entire planet, the cylindrical map was projected onto a globe. The resolution is about 144 kilometers (89 miles) per pixel. Jupiter's moon Europa is casting the shadow on the planet. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Because the Voyagers' power decreases by four watts per year, engineers are learning how to operate the spacecraft under ever-tighter power constraints. And to maximize the Voyagers' lifespans, they also have to consult documents written decade's earlier describing commands and software, in addition to the expertise of former Voyager engineers.

"The technology is many generations old, and it takes someone with 1970s design experience to understand how the spacecraft operate and what updates can be made to permit them to continue operating today and into the future," said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Team members estimate they will have to turn off the last science instrument by 2030. However, even after the spacecraft go silent, they'll continue on their trajectories at their present speed of more than 30,000 mph (48,280 kilometers per hour), completing an orbit within the Milky Way every 225 million years.

First and Farthest: How the Voyagers Blazed Trails

Few missions can match the achievements of NASA's groundbreaking Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft during their 40 years of exploration. Here's a short list of their major accomplishments to date.

Voyager 1 image of Io showing active plume of Loki on limb. Heart-shaped feature southeast of Loki consists of fallout deposits from active plume Pele. The images that make up this mosaic were taken from an average distance of approximately 490,000 kilometers (340,000 miles). Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS
Planetary Firsts

Launched in 1977, the Voyagers delivered many surprises and discoveries from their encounters with the gas giants of the outer solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Between 1977 and 1990, the mission attained these distinctions:

  • First spacecraft to fly by all four planets of the outer solar system (Voyager 2)
  • First mission to discover multiple moons of the four outer planets (both spacecraft): three new moons at Jupiter, four new moons at Saturn, 11 new moons at Uranus, six new moons at Neptune
  • First spacecraft to fly by four different target planets (Voyager 2)
  • First spacecraft to visit Uranus and Neptune (Voyager 2)
  • First spacecraft to image the rings of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune (Voyager 2)
  • First spacecraft to discover active volcanoes beyond Earth (on Jupiter's moon Io—Voyager 1)
  • First spacecraft to detect lightning on a planet other than Earth (at Jupiter—Voyager 1)
  • First spacecraft to find suggestions of an ocean beyond Earth (at Jupiter's moon Europa—both spacecraft)
  • First spacecraft to detect a nitrogen-rich atmosphere found beyond our home planet (at Saturn's moon Titan—Voyager 1)

Heliophysics Firsts

After Voyager 1 departed from Saturn in November 1980, it began a journey to where no human-made object had ever gone before: the space between the stars. On August 25, 2012, it crossed over into interstellar space, leaving behind the heliosphere—the enormous magnetic bubble encompassing our Sun, planets and solar wind. Voyager 2 set course for interstellar space after departing from Neptune in August 1989, and is expected to enter interstellar space in the next few years. Together the Voyagers have taught us a great deal about the extent of our sun's influence and the very nature of the space that lies beyond our planets.

This approximate natural-color image shows Saturn, its rings, and four of its icy satellites. Three satellites (Tethys, Dione, and Rhea) are visible against the darkness of space, and another smaller satellite (Mimas) is visible against Saturn's cloud tops very near the left horizon and just below the rings. The dark shadows of Mimas and Tethys are also visible on Saturn's cloud tops, and the shadow of Saturn is seen across part of the rings. Saturn, second in size only to Jupiter in our Solar System, is 120,660 km (75,000 mi) in diameter at its equator (the ring plane) but, because of its rapid spin, Saturn is 10% smaller measured through its poles. Saturn's rings are composed mostly of ice particles ranging from microscopic dust to boulders in size. These particles orbit Saturn in a vast disk that is a mere 100 meters (330 feet) or so thick. The rings' thinness contrasts with their huge diameter--for instance 272,400 km (169,000 mi) for the outer part of the bright A ring, the outermost ring visible here. The pronounced concentric gap in the rings, the Cassini Division (named after its discoverer), is a 3500-km wide region (2200 mi, almost the width of the United States) that is much less populated with ring particles than the brighter B and A rings to either side of the gap. The rings also show some enigmatic radial structure ('spokes'), particularly at left. This image was synthesized from images taken in Voyager's blue and violet filters and was processed to recreate an approximately natural color and contrast. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS
  • First spacecraft to leave the heliosphere and enter interstellar space (Voyager 1)
  • First spacecraft to measure full intensity of cosmic rays—atoms accelerated to nearly the speed of light—in interstellar space (Voyager 1)
  • First spacecraft to measure magnetic field in (Voyager 1)
  • First spacecraft to measure density of interstellar medium—material ejected by ancient supernovae (Voyager 1)
  • First spacecraft to measure solar wind termination shock—the boundary where charged particles slow below the speed of sound as they begin to press into the interstellar medium (Voyager 2)

Engineering and Computing Firsts and Records

The Voyagers, which launched with nearly identical configurations and instruments, were designed to withstand the harsh radiation environment of Jupiter—the greatest physical challenge they would ever encounter. Preparations for the peril at Jupiter ensured that the Voyagers would be well equipped for the rest of their journeys, too. Engineering and computing advances that the Voyagers debuted set the stage for future missions.

  • First spacecraft extensively protected against radiation, which also set the standard for radiation design margin still in use for space missions today
  • First spacecraft protected against external electrostatic discharges
  • First spacecraft with programmable computer-controlled attitude and articulation (which means the pointing of the spacecraft)
  • First spacecraft with autonomous fault protection, able to detect its own problems and take corrective action
  • First use of Reed-Solomon code for spacecraft data—an algorithm to reduce errors in data transmission and storage, which is widely used today
  • First time engineers linked ground communications antennas together in an array to be able to receive more data (for Voyager 2's Uranus encounter)
These two pictures of Uranus—one in true color (left) and the other in false color—were compiled from images returned Jan. 17, 1986, by the narrow-angle camera of Voyager 2. The spacecraft was 9.1 million kilometers (5.7 million miles) from the planet, several days from closest approach. The picture at left has been processed to show Uranus as human eyes would see it from the vantage point of the spacecraft. The picture is a composite of images taken through blue, green and orange filters. The darker shadings at the upper right of the disk correspond to the day-night boundary on the planet. Beyond this boundary lies the hidden northern hemisphere of Uranus, which currently remains in total darkness as the planet rotates. The blue-green color results from the absorption of red light by methane gas in Uranus' deep, cold and remarkably clear atmosphere. The picture at right uses false color and extreme contrast enhancement to bring out subtle details in the polar region of Uranus. Images obtained through ultraviolet, violet and orange filters were respectively converted to the same blue, green and red colors used to produce the picture at left. The very slight contrasts visible in true color are greatly exaggerated here. In this false-color picture, Uranus reveals a dark polar hood surrounded by a series of progressively lighter concentric bands. One possible explanation is that a brownish haze or smog, concentrated over the pole, is arranged into bands by zonal motions of the upper atmosphere. The bright orange and yellow strip at the lower edge of the planet's limb is an artifact of the image enhancement. In fact, the limb is dark and uniform in color around the planet. Credit: NASA/JPL

Beyond that, the Voyager spacecraft continue setting endurance and distance records:

  • Longest continuously operating spacecraft (Voyager 2, which passed Pioneer 6's record on Aug. 13, 2012)
  • Most distant from the Sun (Voyager 1, which passed Pioneer 10's distance on Feb. 17, 1998 and is currently about 13 billion miles, or 21 billion kilometers, away)

Uranus' icy moon Miranda is seen in this image from Voyager 2 on January 24, 1986. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Neptune's blue-green atmosphere is shown in greater detail than ever before by the Voyager 2 spacecraft as it rapidly approaches its encounter with the giant planet. This color image, produced from a distance of about 16 million kilometers, shows several complex and puzzling atmospheric features. The Great Dark Spot (GDS) seen at the center is about 13,000 km by 6,600 km in size -- as large along its longer dimension as the Earth. The bright, wispy "cirrus-type" clouds seen hovering in the vicinity of the GDS are higher in altitude than the dark material of unknown origin which defines its boundaries. A thin veil often fills part of the GDS interior, as seen on the image. The bright cloud at the southern (lower) edge of the GDS measures about 1,000 km in its north-south extent. The small, bright cloud below the GDS, dubbed the "scooter," rotates faster than the GDS, gaining about 30 degrees eastward (toward the right) in longitude every rotation. Bright streaks of cloud at the latitude of the GDS, the small clouds overlying it, and a dimly visible dark protrusion at its western end are examples of dynamic weather patterns on Neptune, which can change significantly on time scales of one rotation (about 18 hours). Credit: NASA/JPL
Global color mosaic of Triton, taken in 1989 by Voyager 2 during its flyby of the Neptune system. Color was synthesized by combining high-resolution images taken through orange, violet, and ultraviolet filters; these images were displayed as red, green, and blue images and combined to create this color version. With a radius of 1,350 (839 mi), about 22% smaller than Earth's moon, Triton is by far the largest satellite of Neptune. It is one of only three objects in the Solar System known to have a nitrogen-dominated atmosphere (the others are Earth and Saturn's giant moon, Titan). Triton has the coldest surface known anywhere in the Solar System (38 K, about -391 degrees Fahrenheit); it is so cold that most of Triton's nitrogen is condensed as frost, making it the only satellite in the Solar System known to have a surface made mainly of nitrogen ice. The pinkish deposits constitute a vast south polar cap believed to contain methane ice, which would have reacted under sunlight to form pink or red compounds. The dark streaks overlying these pink ices are believed to be an icy and perhaps carbonaceous dust deposited from huge geyser-like plumes, some of which were found to be active during the Voyager 2 flyby. The bluish-green band visible in this image extends all the way around Triton near the equator; it may consist of relatively fresh nitrogen frost deposits. The greenish areas includes what is called the cantaloupe terrain, whose origin is unknown, and a set of "cryovolcanic" landscapes apparently produced by icy-cold liquids (now frozen) erupted from Triton's interior. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

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2.5 / 5 (4) Aug 01, 2017
ONLY possible with nuclear-isotope based RTG's and not crummy solar panels.
4.5 / 5 (8) Aug 01, 2017
ONLY possible with nuclear-isotope based RTG's and not crummy solar panels.

And your point is?
5 / 5 (6) Aug 01, 2017
@rrrander - what a spurious comment. An engineer will always pick the best technology for the job. For missions within the inner solar system, solar panels are hard to beat, but of course they are inappropriate for deep space missions.
5 / 5 (6) Aug 01, 2017
NASA did some good concept stuff with Voyager 1 and 2. Both records were immediately gold. Everything after that was a bit too commercial for my personal tastes.
Mark Thomas
not rated yet Aug 01, 2017
"On August 25, 2012, it crossed over into interstellar space"

There was considerable debate at the time about whether this was truly the date because the magnetic field data was not what the scientists expected. Fortunately, various particle data provided compelling evidence that the interstellar boundary had been crossed. Has anything changed since then? Perhaps NASA could give us a five year anniversary update on August 25th?
1 / 5 (7) Aug 01, 2017
There was considerable debate at the time due to unexpected results of observations. The irony being it is a very, very rare situation where astrophysicists don't have to dramatically change their presumptions to match reality.
To that point, tge data matched very well with the Electric Sun hypothesis.
5 / 5 (4) Aug 01, 2017
To put that 13 billion miles in more relatable context, in a few more months it will have increased to 16 billion miles, making them the first man-made objects to reach the grand distance of 1 light-day away - any data returned from them will have left yesterday, and further instructions sent to them will only arrive tomorrow..
not rated yet Aug 01, 2017
They say Voyager 1 is in interstellar space and that they are detecting gas clouds etc.
What happened to the Kuiper belt or Oort cloud. I realise the Kuiper belt might lie on the ecliptic, thus the Voyagers may miss that, but isn't the Oort cloud supposed to be like a spherical shell of comets??? I realise the Oort cloud is considerable distance away, but if it is a SHELL, then surely it is gravitational bound to our Sun, hence the Voyagers aren't REALLY in interstellar space. I would have considered interstellar meaning beyond our solar system (between stars), which they clearly aren't if such a massive shell of comets exists out there and the Voyagers haven't traversed it yet. They are still in an area of space under gravitational influence of the Sun.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 01, 2017
For impact on the public, the "Pale Blue Dot" photo of the distant Earth and the rest of the portrait series of much of the solar system by Voyager 1 is also worth noting.
not rated yet Aug 02, 2017
I never heard why Voyager 1 was not sent to Uranus and Neptune, as Voyager 2 later was?
I presume Voyager 1 could have been sent on its northerly trek by angling its approach to Neptune.

Having both Voyagers 1 & 2 fly by Neptune would have given us time-lapse data beyond what Voyager 2 alone could provide. And there was always the risk that Voyager 2 might have malfunctioned, losing what were our only close-ups of Uranus and Neptune. Seems like an unwarranted gamble.

So that is why I would like to have heard why Voyager 1 veered north before visiting Uranus and Neptune.
Captain Stumpy
4.2 / 5 (5) Aug 02, 2017
but isn't the Oort cloud supposed to be like a spherical shell of comets???
think of it like the asteroid belt between the rocky inner planets and the outer gas giants: it's a place where there is a sh*tload of asteroids and rocks in a belt that surrounds us, but space is kinda big [understatement intentional]

even with millions of asteroids, there is still a sh*tload of space between each asteroid... it aint like the star wars movies with a belt of rocks and dodging space ships

the sheer volume of space involved past pluto means there would have to be considerable amount in a small volume for us to spot much of anything, especially considering the distance
1.5 / 5 (2) Aug 02, 2017
@rrrander - what a spurious comment. An engineer will always pick the best technology for the job. For missions within the inner solar system, solar panels are hard to beat, but of course they are inappropriate for deep space missions.

Thank goodness it was engineers. If it had been up to some politicians and environmentalists, no spacecraft with RTG's would ever fly. Solar panels have problems. They don't always unfurl, they get dust on them which reduces their efficiency and of course, as you said, they are worthless to use outside Mars.
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Aug 02, 2017
Solar panels . . . are worthless to use outside Mars.

I am a huge fan of RTGs until we invent something better, but you are overstating your case because NASA's Juno probe is working just fine with solar panels from orbit around Jupiter.

"Unlike all earlier spacecraft to the outer planets, Juno is powered only by solar arrays."

5 / 5 (1) Aug 03, 2017
@Captain Stump. Yes I am well aware of that, my gripe is with the terminology. If the Oort cloud exists, and is a shell around the Sun, then I argue that the Voyager spacecraft have NOT left the Solar system, hence are NOT in interstellar space. They are STILL within our Solar system as they haven't traversed the Oort cloud.
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Aug 04, 2017
big_hairy_jimbo, if you define "interstellar space" to be where the influence of the solar wind is less significant than the interstellar medium, then Voyager 1 has been in interstellar space for nearly 5 years. If you define it to be just past where the furthest object is orbiting the sun, then it probably won't cross that line for centuries, depending on the extent of the Oort cloud, etc.

Note that I infer the Oort cloud is going to be a lot more dynamic than the static shell the textbooks depict it to be because of passing stars over the eons like Scholz's star.


My guess is that Astronomer Mike Brown is learning that lesson right now since he can't seem to find his predicted Neptune-sized Planet Nine anywhere. Paraphrasing Yoda from Star Wars:

"Lost a planet, astronomer Mike Brown has. How embarrassing. How embarrassing." :-)
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Aug 04, 2017
IMHO, this paper is not yet being given its due with respect to the Oort Cloud:


"Here we investigate . . . and demonstrate that the star recently (∼70,000 years ago) passed through the Oort Cloud."

Scholz's Star is actually a binary red dwarf - brown dwarf system that would have cut through the outer Oort Cloud like a spinning carbide drill bit cuts through pine. To think the Oort Cloud would be unaffected by that and a multitude of similar close passes over billions of years makes no sense at all. I think the reason this is not widely discussed is because our knowledge of the Oort Cloud is all inferred from objects that left the cloud to enter the inner solar system and simulation. To get the actual picture about what is out there:

"There is no substitute for boldly going where no one has gone before."
3.7 / 5 (9) Aug 07, 2017
To that point, tge data matched very well with the Electric Sun hypothesis.

Lol. Nothing - I repeat, nothing - has ever matched EU "hypotheses". Ever. You seriously think that the idiot Scott, quote mining a PRESS RELEASE is some kind of confirmation of anything? Dear me. Have a look through the scientific literature for papers pre-dating this report. Use search terms such as 'heliopause'. Get back to us. Then do some research on the non-existent incoming current, and associated magnetic field, needed to power his electric sun nonsense.

Who said this?
Positive ions leave the Sun and electrons enter the Sun.

Positive ions stream outward from the Sun's surface and accelerate away, through the corona, for as far as we have been able to measure.

Anybody else see a slight problem with that 'observation?

Deary me. This bloke has a PhD. In EE, mind.
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 07, 2017
@cantdrive85, @jonsedave and @everyone.

The process is complex/hybrid situation/forces at play. Not simple as being 'discussed' by either 'side'. Some phenomena that complicates matters, and determines what actually is flowing away from/or into' the 'solar feature', may not be as cut-and-dried as some on 'both sides' here still portray it.

Consider especially:

- we now know that PLASMOID processes produce JETS of positive and negative particles STREAMING in opposite directions (read about "Plasma Focus Device" for principles involved); so any plasmoid 'jets' of positive nuclei CAN leave the sun while Electrons stream BACK into sun.

- we now also know that Magnetic field patterns CAN SORT-AND-ACCELERATE charged particles in opposite directions depending on their -/+ charge; so coronal mass ejections can contain more/less of either in any one instance, depending on the DIRECTION mag-field at time/point of the 'bursting' phenomena FORCES involved.

Consider all of it. :)

Uncle Ira
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 07, 2017
@ Really-Skippy. How you are Cher? I am fine and dandy now,,, a couple days ago we had the high water though,,, everything is good now, thanks for asking.

Consider all of it.
Okay Cher. I considered all of him. Sorry but you have to be falsified again. Nice try and don't get discouraged. Better luck next time.

Oh yeah, I almost forget. I see where the nice peoples at the physorg had to totally falsify one of your postums and take him down over on the other article. Sorry about that, I know how that hurts your feelings when that happen, but they did not mean anything personal by it.
3 / 5 (4) Aug 08, 2017
@Uncle Ira.
Sorry but you have to be falsified again. Nice try and don't get discouraged. Better luck next time.
No science in your post, Ira; so you did not "consider" anything except your bot-voting list and your inane drivel that followed from that. So you've effectively only 'falsified' yourself, Ira. Bad.
Oh yeah, I almost forget. I see where the nice peoples at the physorg had to totally falsify one of your postums and take him down over on the other article. Sorry about that, I know how that hurts your feelings when that happen, but they did not mean anything personal by it.
Nah. It was only repeat of that list of questions which obviously embarrassed you/CS-gang to address because it would indicate exactly who were the 'falsified' posters here (ie, you/CS-gang). I agree to its removal because I don't want to 'rub your nose(s) in it' again. But if you like, I can repost that list of questions here, since you alluded to that post. Just say the word, Ira!

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