Voyager, NASA's Loneliest Spacecraft

NASA's Voyager 1 space probe is still making history 35 years after it launched to explore our Solar System on a journey that'll take it into deep space. The probe has just entered a totally new region of space where particles flying out from our Sun are meeting particles in interstellar space. It means the Solar System may be bigger than we'd imagined.

A Family Portrait

This photograph may be the second most astonishing space photo ever made, after the famous boot print on the Moon. That's because it's the first ever image of our home solar system captured from the "outside." It's a composite of 60 images taken on Valentine's Day, 1990 when Voyager 1 swiveled its cameras back to point at the Sun and its planets.

That little pale blue dot? That's Earth, your home. Talk about giving us all a new perspective.

Alien Volcano

In 1979 Voyager discovered the volcano Loki on Io, the tiny moon of Jupiter that's the only other place we've discovered active volcanos yet.

And Loki is truly the big daddy supervolcano. It's the size of Connecticut, with a crater that's 125 miles across, and it shoots material up to 250 miles into space above Io (that's about ten times higher than any Earth volcano). Unlike on Earth, Io's volcanos are powered by gravitational "tidal" forces caused by its orbit around Jupiter--kneading the moon's core and heating it up. But lessons learned about Io's volcanos certainly apply to Earth, and have helped advance planetary science.

Great Red Spot

Voyager's images of Jupiter's clouds rank among the most amazing and beautiful space photos ever taken, including this one snapped February 25th, 1979 and showing cloud detail as small as 100 miles across.

The Great Red Spot, Jupiter's prize cloud formation, has fascinated scientists since the early 19th Century because on a planet whose atmosphere is full of whirling clouds and tornados bigger than Earth, the Spot somehow persists for centuries. This is a trick we now explain with Chaos theory, which also helps us understand our own planet's atmosphere and weather.


The Voyager missions to Jupiter told us more than we'd ever been able to guess about the moons first discovered by Galileo, including Europa. The first photos from Voyager 1 showed the icy moon to be curiously cracked, and subsequent Voyager 2 photos added to the mystery.

The theory is that Europa is actually an ocean moon, covered in a layer of ice formed where the moon-wide ocean meets the vacuum of space. Some suggest it may even be the other place in our solar system that life exists.

To tour these moons, which orbit inside Jupiter's hostile radiation and magnetic environments, Voyager was the first spacecraft that used "radiation hardened parts," which protected the delicate computers and electronics from damage. Radiation hardening has been used on spacecraft ever since.

A Titan Of A Moon

Soaring above Saturn at the close distance of just 77,000 miles in November 1980, Voyager 1 captured the most detailed pictures of Saturn and its moons ever taken. Voyager discovered incredible detail in the planet's atmosphere and rings, including new rings and previously undiscovered wobbles. But it was decided that because an earlier probe, Pioneer 11, had found an atmosphere on Titan Voyager 1 would swing by the moon as closely as possible to study it.

The images of the thick atmosphere made scientific history and directly influenced the later Galileo mission which successfully placed a lander on Titan's surface.

The Golden Record

If interplanetary aliens ever find Voyager in deep space, they'll discover its famous golden record pinned to the side. Decorated with symbols that tell them how to listen to the record, and where it came from, the 12-inch gold-plated copper disc contained inside the cover is filled with sounds and images depicting Earth and its various life forms. There's even some snatches of music encoded on there. Sadly a sample of Gustav Holst's The Planets isn't one of them.

It'll be forty thousand years until the probes and their records reach nearby stars, and it's worth noting that in comparison Homo Sapiens--our species--only began to behave the way us modern humans do about 50,000 years ago.

Neptune And The Abyss

In August 1989, Voyager 2--sister to the probe in the fresh news about the Solar System--flew by the last planet it was going to encounter in its mission: Mysterious Neptune. Until that time, Neptune was almost an unknown quantity due to its incredible distance from Earth and the limits of ground-based telescopes. Voyager 2 changed all that, discovering Neptune's faint rings, incredible detail of clouds in its upper atmosphere and the brief, but fascinating "Great Dark Spot." A flyby of the moon Triton shot Voyager 2 into the abyss of deep space in a similar way to Voyager 1's flyby of Saturn's Triton.

It's expected that both Voyager 1 and 2 will operate until 2025--meaning they'll have been working continuously, and making history, for nearly 50 years. Take a peep at all the tech in your home, and ponder which bits, if any, will last even a tenth of that lifespan.

8 Amazing Things About NASA's Voyager Probes

NASA's Voyager 1 probe is still making new discoveries in deep space 35 years after its launch. Now it tells us our solar system is bigger than we thought.

Voyager 1 is a lonely little machine, zapping through space at over 10 miles a second and billions of miles out from the sun—it's the furthest manmade object from home. But this week NASA revealed its instruments, still functioning after 35 years (and a testament to some innovative design that meant it used the first space-hardened electronics and some rigorous fault prevention) have found something new.

It's a new region of space, right at the edge of the influence of our Sun, where magnetic particles streaming out from the sun are mixing with magnetic particles shooting through deep interstellar space. In a kind of particle dance, NASA's scientists revealed that the discovery wasn't something they'd been expecting, and it means that they're now "tasting" the particles from deep space. The news means the boundary between our solar system and interstellar space is a little further out than we'd thought—but at some point soon Voyager 1 really will sail into deep space, and become the first man-made emissary outside our home solar system.

But Voyager 1 has been making history almost since its launch in 1977, including a dramatic flyby of Saturn's moon Titan that showed us tantalizing glimpses of its atmosphere and thus directly influenced the Huygens mission that landed a probe on that moon in 2005. The Titan flyby also decided Voyager 1's fate—slingshotting it out of our solar system.

Powered by small nuclear generators that turn heat into electricity, the Voyager 1 and 2's systems were so well designed that Voyager 2 only turned off its data tape recorder in 2007, and switched to its backup thrusters—not its main ones, mind you—in November 2011. They were the first spacecraft to feature computers that could be reprogrammed after launch, which is now the standard design for spacecraft—and, if you think about it, your iPhone. And they were the first spacecraft to include fault protection so that they could catch their own errors. The probes' radio signals are now coming from such a huge distance that they're almost invisibly faint—a fact that in the late 1980s led NASA to combine radio telescope data from different telescopes together in a totally new way so that it could listen to the data being streamed from the probes. Just one of many Voyager "firsts."

[Image: NASA]

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