Pale-blue-dot-Earth Voyager 1

What Voyager 1 (Earth’s Farthest Spacecraft) Saw In Its Cosmic Journey of 43 Years?

Whenever we talk about space missions, it’s almost kind of impossible that the name of Voyager 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 a number of 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. 

So today, on the 43rd launch anniversary of Voyager 1 spacecraft, 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 the launch of 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.

This image of the Earth and moon in a single frame was recorded on Sept. 18, 1977, by Voyager 1 when it was 7.25 million miles from Earth. (Image: space.com
This image of the Earth and moon in a single frame was recorded on Sept. 18, 1977, by Voyager 1 when it was 7.25 million miles from Earth. (Image: NASA)

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.

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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.

Photos of Jupiter and two of its satellites (Io, left, and Europa), as captured by Voyager 1 (Image: NASA/JPL)
Photos of Jupiter and two of its satellites (Io, left, and Europa),(Image: NASA/JPL)

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. 

Image of Io showing active plume of Loki on limb.The images that make up this mosaic were taken from an average distance of approximately 340,000 miles (Image: NASA/JPL/USGS)

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 successful exploration of 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.

Color-enhanced image of Saturn taken on October 18, 1980, 25 days before the spacecraft’s closest approach.(Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

False color image showing layers of haze covering Saturn’s moon Titan. This image was taken by Voyager 1 on November 12, 1980, at a range of 13,700 miles. (Image: NASA/JPL)

Voyager 1 also imaged the moons Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, and Rhea, along with 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:

The "Family Portrait of the Solar System" series of images taken by the spacecraft before its camera shut down. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)
The “Family Portrait of the Solar System” series of images taken by the spacecraft before its camera shut down. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

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. 

The pale blue dot (Image : NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The pale blue dot (Image : NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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.

A never ending voyage:

On Dec. 16, 2004, the scientists announced that Voyager 1 had reported high values for the intensity of the magnetic field 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 have exited the heliosphere and to enter the interstellar space. 

An artist’s concept depicts NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft entering interstellar space (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Surprisingly, this magnificent spacecraft is still collecting data at a distance of 13.5 billion miles away from 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 will silently dive into its eternal journey among the stars, forever voyaging the unexplored! 

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8 thoughts on “What Voyager 1 (Earth’s Farthest Spacecraft) Saw In Its Cosmic Journey of 43 Years?”

  1. Veerasuthaharan Sithravelauthai

    Its great pleasure to read the humans achievement and mortivate us that we can discover much more about universe.

  2. This has been collated beautifully on the whole journey. I love the pale blue dot photograph (not not just a poster but a screensaver).

    Could you do the same for Hubble Space telescope as well ?

  3. Jean Clark Cayacap

    I hope there will come a time that man will find this pal again and return him home. Kinda makes me feel sad it’s alone out there. :'(

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