Happy 35th birthday Voyager 2!

20 Aug

Voyager 2 launched on August 20, 1977. It was built (along with its identical twin Voyager 1) to explore the outer planets of our solar system – namely Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It did all that, and to this day is the only spacecraft to visit Uranus and Neptune. On top of that, as of a week ago (August 13, 2012) Voyager 2 became the longest operating spacecraft in human history. It surpassed Pioneer 6, which launched on December 16, 1965, and sent its last signal back to NASA’s Deep Space Network a cool 12,758 days later on December 8, 2000.

Voyager 2 is nearly 15 billion kilometers from the Earth today. At the speed of light, it would take you about 14 hours to get there.

Voyager 1’s 35th birthday is coming up in 16 days, on September 5, 2012 – and in spite of launching a couple weeks after Voyager 2, Voyager 1 is even further away: Voyager 1 is over 18 billion kilometers away from Earth, or nearly 17 hours of light-travel time.

The Voyager mission was planned when it was because of an uncommon alignment of the four outer planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune – which allowed all the planets to be visited in a single mission. Voyager 1 visited Jupiter and Saturn and then used a gravity assist/slingshot from Saturn and headed north – directly towards the edge of the solar system. Voyager 2 took a less direct route to the edge (which explains why it isn’t as far away) visiting Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and finally Neptune before using a gravity assist/slingshot to head towards the edge of the solar system in a southerly direction.

Both Voyagers are currently in a region of space called the Heliosheath, which is the outermost layer of the Heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas. They’re right on the very edge of our solar system, and based on the current readings and data that the spacecraft are sending back to us, it is suspected that they will “break through” into interstellar space in the very near future (“near future” meaning it could be months or a few years). Both spacecraft are travelling about 60,000km/h, though Voyager 1 is travelling slightly faster than Voyager 2. Their radioisotope thermoelectric generators will be able to sustain sufficient electrical output to operate until 2020, or possibly until 2025.

It’s so incredible to me that these two spacecraft still function 35 years after their launch, using 1970s technology, and on a daily basis continue to answer questions about the universe we live in.

The cooler thing to me about these spacecraft is that they are truly about exploration. The Voyagers were launched because we didn’t know what we didn’t know. They intended not only to answer questions, but to find new questions that we hadn’t thought of asking yet – and they continue to be successful on all accounts. This is true exploration.

To read more about the 35th birthday of Voyager 2, click here. To read more about the Voyagers and their ongoing mission in general, click here.

And a great mission overview/update video (though it is from 2011) –

Some key dates for Voyager 1:

Launch: September 5, 1977
Closest approach to Jupiter (349,000km): March 5, 1979
Closest approach to Saturn (124,000km): November 12, 1979
Took the famous “family portrait” and “pale blue dot” images (6 billion + km): February-June 1990

Some key dates for Voyager 2:

Launch: August 20, 1977
Closest approach to Jupiter (570,000km): July 9, 1979
Closest approach to Saturn (100,800km): August 26, 1981
Closest approach to Uranus (81,500km): January 24, 1986
Closest approach to Neptune (4,800km): August 25, 1989 – yes you read that correctly…Voyager 2 passed a mere 4,800km above Neptune’s north pole!

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One Response to “Happy 35th birthday Voyager 2!”


  1. » Happy 35th birthday Voyager 1! ZamboniPilot.com - September 5, 2012

    […] more fully about the Voyager mission you can read two of my previous blog posts on the subject: Happy 35th birthday Voyager 2 and The Pale Blue […]

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