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, launched in 1977 to make 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.
Chapter 1 – Jupiter
Voyager 2 was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida 15 days before its counterpart Voyager 1. Voyager 2 followed a longer and slower trajectory than its partner, and after two years of its launch, it arrived at Jupiter in July 1979. The chapter “Jupiter” of its journey explored the gas giant, its magnetosphere and studied its moons in greater detail than Pioneer had explored. Voyager 2 returned spectacular photos of the entire Jovian system, and the time-lapse movies made from its images of Jupiter showed how the planet had changed since Voyager 1’s visit.
The spacecraft studied the Great Red Spot in detail and found that the solar system’s largest storm gradually fading away with time. The images of Io revealed changes in the moon’s surface and the persistence of its volcanic eruptions. Moreover, it also discovered the 14th moon and revealed a third component to the planet’s rings.
After exploring Jupiter, it headed towards Saturn by using Jupiter as a springboard to Saturn, using the gravity-assist technique.
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Chapter 2 – Saturn
Voyager 2 arrived at the beautiful ringed world “Saturn” on August 25, 1982. This made it the third spacecraft to visit Saturn after Pioneer 11 in 1979 and its twin Voyager 1 in 1980. Voyager 2 gave another close-range look at Saturn and its moons. Using its photopolarimeter, the spacecraft observed the planet’s rings at a much higher resolution which led to the discovery of many more ringlets. It also provided more detailed images of the ring spokes and kinks, the F-ring, and its shepherding moons.
After concluding its Saturn tour, it employed a gravity-assist maneuver at Saturn to help it reach its next destination, Uranus.
Chapter 3 – Uranus
In January 1986, Voyager 2 arrived at its “never visited before” destination, Uranus. This made it the first spacecraft ever to visit Uranus, and it remains the only spacecraft to have flown by Uranus. During its Jupiter voyage, the spacecraft found evidence of an ocean of boiling water about 500 miles (800 kilometers) below its cloud tops. Moreover, its Sun-facing pole’s average temperature was found to be the same as that at the equator.
It also discovered 10 new moons, two new rings, and a strangely tilted magnetic field stronger than Saturn on Uranus. The spacecraft also witnessed that the planet is tilted by 98°, indicating it essentially spins on its side.
After exploring the Uranus leg of its journey, a gravity assist at Uranus propelled the spacecraft toward its next destination, Neptune.
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Chapter 4 – Neptune
Almost after three and a half years of its Uranus voyage, Voyager 2 arrived at its final destination, Neptune, on August 25, 1989. To date, it is the only human-made object to have flown by Neptune.
In the closest approach of its entire tour, the spacecraft passed less than 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) above the planet’s cloud tops. As far as Neptune is concerned, Voyager 2 discovered five moons, four rings, and a “Great Dark Spot” that got vanished by the time the Hubble Space Telescope imaged Neptune five years later. Moreover, it also revealed that Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, is the coldest known planetary body in the solar system, with a nitrogen ice “volcano” on its surface.
Voyager 2 – A Never Ending Journey Towards the Unknown:
Voyager 2 accomplished its primary voyage of the four outer worlds of our solar system. Finally, after Neptune’s flyby, a gravity assist at Neptune shot Voyager 2 below the plane in which the planets orbit the Sun and set it on a never-ending course out of the solar system. Nearly 18 years after its Neptune tour, Voyager 2 crossed termination shock into a turbulent area known as the heliosheath, a point where the solar wind slows abruptly, becoming denser and hotter. Eventually, in December 2018, NASA announced that Voyager 2 had entered interstellar space.
This made Voyager 2 the second spacecraft to do so after its sister ship Voyager 1 in 2012. As of July 2019, Voyager 2 continued to return data from its five active instruments while traveling through interstellar space. And, at least one of the instruments aboard the spacecraft is expected to remain active till 2025. But sadly, a time will come when there will not be enough electricity to power even one instrument aboard the spacecraft. It will take nearly 40,000 years for the spacecraft before it comes close to another star, and in this way, Voyager 2 will silently continue its eternal journey among the stars.