Friday, August 20, 2010

Happy Birthday, Voyager 2!

For an incredible 33 years, Voyager 2 has been our eyes of discovery in the outer solar system and beyond. This venerable spacecraft has been in continuous operation more than 12,000 days, sending us compelling photos and information about the gas giants of the solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Now headed into interstellar space beyond the solar system, the spacecraft is still transmitting invaluable data about the solar wind and deep space beyond the planets.

On August 20, 1977, Voyager 2 blasted off from Cape Canaveral, FL on a mission to the giant planets of the solar system. Its sister spacecraft, Voyager 1, was launched a few days later on September 5. Both original missions were intended to study just Jupiter and Saturn. However, both continued sending data beyond those planets, and thanks to these intrepid spacecraft, we have now had a close encounter with every planet in the solar system. (Pluto is now called a “plutoid” and is no longer considered a planet.)

(Just think, the computers on these spacecraft were made in the 1970’s and they are still working! Pretty remarkable, huh?)

Here are a few fast facts about the Voyager mission:

• Explored all giant planets of the outer solar system
• Explored their 48 moons and unique ring systems
• Closest approach to Jupiter - 1979
• Closest approach to Saturn - 1980 (Voyager 1); 1981 (Voyager 2)
• Closest approach to Uranus – 1986 (Voyager 2)
• Closest approach to Neptune – 1989 (Voyager 2)
• Carry a golden record with a greeting from Earth
• Now the most distant human-made object in space (Voyager 1)
• Distance from sun - 17 billion km (Voyager 1); 14 billion km (Voyager 2)
• Signal from Earth takes over 12 hours to reach spacecraft
• Crossed termination shock, where solar wind slows abruptly, in 2004 (Voyager 1); 2007 (Voyager 2)
• May have reached or will soon reach Heliopause or entry into interstellar space
• Currently, 5 teams investigating: Magnetic fields, Low energy charged particles, Cosmic rays, Plasma (Voyager 2), Plasma waves
• May continue to operate and send data until around 2020

Long-lived Voyager has been documented often in fiction and pop culture (remember “V’ger” in the Star Trek movie?). So Happy Birthday, Voyager! May you live long and prosper!

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