Whenever we talk about space missions, it’s almost impossible that Voyager’s name won’t erupt out from somewhere. The Voyager program is an American scientific program that employs two robotic probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, that were launched in 1977 to make some extraordinary revelations about numerous cosmic wonders. Over the years, the data and photographs collected by the cameras, magnetometers, and other instruments aboard both the spacecraft have revealed several unknown details about each of the four giant planets in our solar system, and now, both are roaming quietly in the boundless and mysterious interstellar space. Let’s have a flashback of what it has witnessed over its journey so far!
Launch of Voyager 1 :
Voyager 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, 16 days after its counterpart, Voyager 2. Voyager 2 was launched on August 20, 1977, whereas Voyager 1 was launched on September 5, 1977, following a comparatively shorter and faster trajectory than its twin Voyager 2. Although Voyager 1 was launched 16 days after the launch of Voyager 2, because of a faster route, it exited the asteroid belt earlier than its twin and eventually overtook Voyager 2 on Dec. 15, 1977.
Chapter 1 : Jupiter
Because of the direct path that Voyager 1 was set on to, it took the spacecraft only one and a half years to get to Jupiter, the gas giant of our solar system. Eventually, in January 1979, Voyager 1 sent back its first set of Jovian images.
The images sent by the spacecraft indicated that Jupiter’s atmosphere was more turbulent than what was found during the Pioneer flybys in 1973-1974. On Jan 30, 1979, Voyager 1 started taking a picture of Jupiter every 96 seconds. These images were taken for a span of 100 hours to generate a color time-lapse movie to depict 10 rotations of Jupiter.
The spacecraft imaged the moons Amalthea, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, showing details of their terrain for the first time. However, amongst all the Jovian observations made by Voyager 1, one of the most interesting findings was on Io, where the images showed a bizarre yellow, orange, and brown world with at least eight active volcanoes spewing material into space, making it one of the most geologically active planetary bodies in the solar system.
Along with discovering a not known before thin ring around the gas giant, the spacecraft also discovered two new Jovian moons, Thebe and Metis. Voyager 1 explored the gas giant, its magnetosphere, and moons in greater detail than what was achieved with the Pioneer mission. Subsequently, after successfully exploring the Jovian family, Voyager 1 used Jupiter as a springboard to head towards Saturn, using the gravity-assist technique.
Chapter 2 : Saturn
Nearly after 20 months of its Jupiter voyage, on November 9, 1980, Voyager 1 reached its next destination, “The ringed world: Saturn.” Voyager 1 became the second spacecraft to visit Saturn after its predecessor, Pioneer 11.
As far as the Saturn leg of Voyager 1’s journey is concerned, the most interesting target was Titan, which Voyager 1 passed on Nov. 12, 1979, at a range of about 2,500 miles. Images captured by the spacecraft revealed that a thick atmosphere completely engulfed the moon’s surface.
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The spacecraft found that Titan’s atmosphere was composed of 90% nitrogen. Atmospheric data suggested that Titan might be the first body in the solar system, apart from Earth, where liquid might exist on the surface. Moreover, the presence of nitrogen, methane, and more complex hydrocarbons indicated that prebiotic chemical reactions might also be possible on Titan.
Voyager 1 also imaged the moons Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, and Rhea, revealing the fine structures of Saturn’s complex and beautiful ring system and adding the G ring to the list of known rings. The spacecraft explored Saturn, its rings, moons, and magnetic field in greater detail than was ever studied earlier.
However, because of the specific trajectory and speeds required for the Titan flyby, the spacecraft was never directed to Uranus and Neptune, contrary to what was done to Voyager 2. Consequently, Voyager 1 used a gravity assist at Saturn to alter its course and increase its speed, which eventually gave it a trajectory to take it out of the solar system.
Solar System’s family portrait:
While Voyager 1 had set itself on its journey away from the Solar system, it came across a surprising mission. On Feb 14, 1990, at a distance of 4 billion miles away, Voyager 1’s cameras were pointed backward on a special request made by Carl Sagan. The spacecraft captured about 60 images of the Sun and planets, giving the first “portrait” of our solar system as seen from the outside. One among the mosaic of these images was a photograph of Earth that later became famous as the “Pale Blue Dot.” This image portrayed our blue planet as a tiny spec against a beam of magnificent light.
These images were the last of 67,000 images taken by the two Voyager spacecraft. After this, the spacecraft’s cameras were turned off forever to save power and memory for the interstellar mission.
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A never ending voyage:
On Dec. 16, 2004, the scientists announced that Voyager 1 had reported high values for the magnetic field’s intensity at a distance of 94 AU. This indicated that the spacecraft had reached the termination shock and had now entered the heliosheath, a point where the solar wind slows abruptly, becoming denser and hotter. Finally, on August 25, 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft ever to exited the heliosphere and entered interstellar space.
Surprisingly, this magnificent spacecraft is still collecting data at a distance of 13.5 billion miles away from the sun in a bid to unravel some unknown cosmic secrets. It is expected that its last instrument onboard will remain active till 2021, before it silently dives into its eternal journey among the stars, forever voyaging the unexplored!
Before you go, make sure you also read:
- What Voyager 2 saw in its journey of 43 years
- 15 breathtaking images of Jupiter taken by the Juno space probe
- The mirror of the universe: Ozma problem in science
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