Voyager 1: ‘The little spacecraft that could explore Jupiter and Saturn and their larger moons
Launched individually in the summer of 1977, Voyager was a twin-spacecraft primary mission developed by NASA to explore Jupiter and Saturn and their larger moons.
Following successful completion of the Voyager mission’s primary objectives, a rare planetary alignment offered up remarkable opportunities for the two craft to continue space exploration.
“Voyager took advantage of alignment of the outer planets, which are Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, to be able to go by all four of those planets in a 12-year period. That alignment of planets only happens every 176 years,” says Dodd — who has described Voyager 1 as “the little spacecraft that could.”
So in 1980 the Voyager mission was officially extended and renamed the Interstellar mission. The probes were now participating in an exploratory odyssey to the farthest reaches of the heliosphere … and beyond.
Through remote-control reprogramming — a technological advancement unavailable at launch — using Saturn’s gravitational field, the Voyager 1 probe was fired like a slingshot on a trajectory that would take it onwards into interstellar space.
Meanwhile Voyager 2 was redirected onto a new flight path, taking in the sights of Neptune and Uranus, before it will eventually follow its counterpart out of the heliosphere. To this day, it remains the only man-made object to have visited Neptune and Uranus.
Not bad for vintage technology that has just 70 kilobytes of memory on board; a 16 gigabyte iPhone 5 has more than 240,000 times that amount.
Voyager 1 is now so far from Earth that commands take more than 17 hours to reach it. But it will be a little while before the spacecraft will encounter any more planets.
“It is going to take us 40,000 years to come within three light years of the next nearest sun or the next nearest star,” says Dodd. “And that is a long, long time.”