Where were you on September 5, 1977? I was relaxing at home, enjoying the day, oblivious to the awesomeness that was the launch of the Voyager 1 spacecraft. My space fan-girl-ness had not started yet. . .I was only 6 months old.
Even if I were old enough to remember that day, I don’t know if I would appreciate the Voyager 1 missions as much as I do now. But first, let’s talk about exactly what the Voyager spacecrafts are and their missions.
Both Voyager missions launched around the same time for a planned 2-year mission. According to NASA, their main mission was to conduct close-up studies of Jupiter and Saturn, Saturn’s sings, and the larger moons of both planets.
But the scientists and engineers at NASA built both Voyagers to last 5 years, so after its initial mission was complete, there was a wonderful opportunity for Voyagers to flyby Uranus and Neptune as well, along with their moons. By the time that was complete, Voyager 1 and 2 explored Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and 48 of their moons.
The science gleaned from the Voyager missions was incalculable. But one of the best parts about the Voyagers is that they’re still going more than 30 years later! Think back to technology in the 1970s and how it compares to today. Do you have anything built in the 1970s that still works. . .in space? Probably not.
So not only did these spacecraft give us information about the 4 outer planets (sorry Pluto) that we did not know before, but it is now embarking on a mission where even scientists are unsure of what to expect.
Space is big. Really big. Voyager 1 and 2 are traveling at about 35,000 mph, and they’re just now making it to the edge of our solar system. That may not seem like very far when you’re thinking about the size of the whole Milky Way galaxy, but how awesomely cool is it that two man-made objects are about to escape the solar system? Our solar system. Our home.
So how will we know when Voyager 1 has left the solar system. Unfortunately, there are no road signs to let us know. Voyager 1 has already crossed the heliosheath, which is the point where the sun’s solar wind slows down and interacts with interstellar space. We know this because Voyager 1 contains instruments that measure the speed of the solar wind.
This is why I’m more excited about the Voyager missions now than I would have been when they were exploring the planets, even though that was supremely cool and awesome and taught us so much. We’re traveling farther than we’ve ever traveled, we won’t know we’re there until we’re already there, and we have no idea what’s ahead of us. I’m continually amazed at humans and what we can do. Science!