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Where are the Voyagers now?

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The remarkable twin Voyager spacecraft continue to explore the outer reaches of the solar system decades after they completed their surveys of the Outer Planets.  Launched in 1977 (September 5 for Voyager 1 (V1) and August 20 for Voyager 2 (V2), whose trajectory took it past Jupiter after Voyager 1), the spacecraft pair made many fundamental discoveries as they flew past Jupiter (March 1979 for V1, July 1979 for V2) and Saturn (November 1980 for V1, August 1981 for V2).  The path of Voyager 2 past Saturn was targeted so that it continued within the plane of the solar system, allowing it to become the first spacecraft to visit Uranus (January 1986) and Neptune (August 1989).  Following the Neptune encounter, both spacecraft started a new phase of exploration under the intriguing title of the Voyager Interstellar Mission.

Voyager

Voyager Spacecraft

Five instruments continue to collect important measurements of magnetic fields, plasmas, and charged particles as both spacecraft explore different portions of the solar system beyond the orbits of the planets.  Voyager 1 is now more than 118 astronomical units (one AU is equal to the average orbital distance of Earth from the Sun) distant from the sun, traveling at a speed (relative to the sun) of 17.1 kilometers per second (10.6 miles per second).  Voyager 2 is now more than 96 AU from the sun, traveling at a speed of 15.5 kilometers per second (9.6 miles per second).  Both spacecraft are moving considerably faster than Pioneers 10 and 11, two earlier spacecraft that became the first robotic visitors to fly past Jupiter and Saturn in the mid-70s.

 

Jupiter

This processed color image of Jupiter was produced in 1990 by the U.S. Geological Survey from a Voyager image captured in 1979.

As seen in the night sky at Earth, Voyager 1 is within the confines of the constellation Ophiuchus, only slightly above the celestial equator; no telescope can see it, but radio contact is expected to be maintained for at least the next ten years.  Voyager 2 is within the bounds of the constellation Telescopium (which somehow sounds quite appropriate) in the far southern night sky.

 

Heliosphere

Diagram of the Voyager and Pioneer spacecrafts leaving the solar system.

Both spacecraft have already passed something called the Termination Shock (December 2004 for V1, August 2007 for V2), where the solar wind slows as it starts to interact with the particles and fields present between the stars.  It is expected that both spacecraft will encounter the Heliopause, where the solar wind ceases as true interstellar space begins, from 10 to 20 years after crossing the Termination Shock.  Theories exist for what should be present in interstellar space, but the Voyagers will become the first man-made objects to go beyond the influences of the Sun, hopefully returning the first measurements of what it is like out there.  Each spacecraft is carrying a metal record with encoded sounds and sights from Earth, along with the needle needed to read the recordings, and simplified instructions for where the spacecraft came from, in case they are eventually discovered by intelligent extra-terrestrials.

 

Voyager Record

The Voyager "Sounds of Earth" Record, placed on board the Voyager spacecraft contains sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth.

 

Keep track of the Voyager spacecraft on the official Voyager Interstellar Mission website or follow @NASAVoyager2 on Twitter.

 

Jim Zimbelman is a geologist in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum.

The sun ejects a continuous stream of charged particles (electrons, protons, etc) that is collectively termed the solar wind.  The particles are traveling extremely fast and are dense enough to form a very tenuous atmosphere; the heliosphere represents the volume of space where the effects of the solar wind dominate over those of particles in interstellar space.  The solar wind particles are moving very much faster than the local speed of sound represented by their low volume density.  When the particles begin to interact with interstellar particles and fields (the interaction can be either physically running into other particles or experiencing an electromagnetic force resulting from a charged particle moving within a magnetic field), then they start to slow down.  The point at which they become subsonic (rather than their normal hypersonic speed) is the Termination Shock.

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32 thoughts on “Where are the Voyagers now?

  1. Both V1 and V2 seem like long shots for extra-terrestrial contact! Another way to look at these missions is that these 2 probes will eventually produce our 1st interstellar garbage.

  2. Oh no we’re totally going to clutter up the vast magnitude of the universe with two probes that are a unbelievably tiny fraction of the mass of our entire planet which is itself insignificant compared to the size of the solar system let alone the entire universe. Roughly the equivalent of dropping two foreign atoms into the ocean. Please. The information gathered from the probes will far outweigh whatever environmental hazard you’re concerned about.

  3. I think that if we as humanity last long enough, during future space travel or interstellar travel, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of us finds it and it becomes a history lesson to all who are alive at that time. It would be like hearing and seeing what life was like for cave men or early Babylon. Oh to see their reactions to that!

  4. Where are the weekly reports that were filed on the Voyager website?
    The last one was the week of 29 Apr 2011……………..

  5. Bob and Robert. You guys are cynics. Give credit, those 2 probes were launched in the 70s and they are still transmitting at all. That is some good tech. Respect for NASA.

  6. I’m also with zack, but I imagine some alien civilisation one day trying to decypher it with their technology, trying telepathy etc and finding it beyond their technology to interpret lol.

  7. I’m with Bob. I cannot WAIT to see what information we get back from the probes. I only hope I’m still alive to share in the awe and wonder, seeing as it may be 20 years until they reach the “heliopause” and I’m 40 now.

  8. Great stuff! I’d like to imagine another “life-form” finding it and trying to “decode” the instructions.

  9. Im with Bob on this one. The chance of intelligent life existing anywhere near where the trajectory of these two machines are is unbelievably slim. And even if intelligent life exists, it is pretty conceited to think our technology is at all beyond what other alien life could be capable of. Some people believe the earliest form of humans came around about 5-7 million years ago, but the universe has been expanding since 13.7 billion years ago so we are a relatively young species with a lot to learn. Aliens could be way smarter than us. Not to sound mean or anything I just love this topic

  10. Yo, I’m from another galaxy, and I just found this shiny disc with heiroglyphics on the front which are entirely untranslatable because I’m from another planet and don’t have even the simplest of Earthling phonemes to start the translation process with. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with this or what a record player is but your disc has at least served as a decent frisbee in our low gravity environment.

  11. I think it’d be a good idea to start firing all our garbage into space, vaguely in the direction of the Sun. We wouldn’t even have to try very hard to hit it. Maybe we can even find a way to propel rockets using our toxic waste.

  12. I think Bob was trying to drive home the point that these two probes, whilst significant in their data gathering, are insignificant compared to the sheer magnitude of our universe. His was a rebuttal to Robert’s comment about “interstellar garbage,” which I find utterly preposterous.

  13. At Jalin, I remember I once watched an anime called Eureka 7 which is set 10,000 years in the future or something. In any case people left Earth a few thousand years ago and must have run into the Voyager on the trip because a character pulled out the disk that was on board and talked about how much it taught him of our ‘ancient history’.

    I know it’s kind of silly talking about an anime in this context, but I just thought it was a really good example of what the Voyager really stands for in terms of our lasting legacy.

  14. “Voyager 1 is now more than 118 astronomical units (one AU is equal to the average orbital distance of Earth from the Sun)”

    Oops … looks like someone missed a decimal point here. ;-)

  15. What ever happen with Cassini spacexraft Lost that also ? I HAVEN`T HEARD ABOUT THAT CRAFT OR DATA. What go`s up must come down> ISSIC NORTON quote

  16. These probes will be used for target practice after AI takes over the earth and then the rest of Universe.

  17. I just can’t believe that nothing has smashed into them yet. The fact that they are still transmitting is completely awesome. Imagine if those things were equipped with something like a smart phone.. never mind, the battery would run out. ha! I did a science fair project on V2 back in elementary school, I’ve always loved that satellite, and the idea that we were sending breadcrumbs of information out into the solar system. These machines will go on and on and on, some day drifting broken into the vastness of space. I wish I was strapped to it. The sights those things have seen are unthinkable.

  18. It’s amazing technical feat. We were never there but it still works and sends data.

    ROB if you think it would be better not to send anything into space to check out what is there, then you better not enter the internet, because it is just the same in principle. Human’s are reaching out and the probes reached their goal loooong time ago. New missions are added because they won’t die.

    FASCINATING!

  19. Kevin raised a good point. How is it that neither V1 or V2 haven’t been struck by anything? The foreign debris wouldn’t even need to be very large, considering their speed. I wonder if they’ll still be transmitting once they’ve breached the heliopause?

    p.s. (couldn’t resist): Alien, after just arriving on Earth, “Take us to your DJ,” it says, holding up the ‘Sounds of Earth’ disc. At this point, the Army opens fire and riddles the alien’s body with bullets.

  20. What if it reaches earth again when we’ve rotated to the other side of the galaxy. Man that’s deep

  21. Bad news — the LP record’s content has been ruled to be in violation of the digital millenium copyright act. Once an Alien species tries to play it they will be subject to monetary fines and imprisonment.

  22. A lone Scoutship came upon a small metal object floating in interstellar space, once the ship return to their home world there was great celebration. First Contact! First Contact! The joy was felt over the entire planet “We are not alone.” “We must go there.”
    With great effort and expense they left their home world and headed for Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. After many years and much hardship they arrived and settled into orbit around this rare and special planet, ready to meet the only other intelligent species know to them.
    With the greatest excitement they turned their sensors toward the Planet Earth.
    When they saw the destroyed dead planet before them, they could only cry.
    Maybe the human species wasn’t so intelligent after all.

  23. To call these two probes junk is kinda like saying there are these ramshackle pyramid type things in Egypt that really need repointing and there’s this old wall in china that’s probably best of just coming down. My money is that the first test flight of any truly interstellar vehicle will be to catch up with these things so they can be brought back, and put in a museum so our descendants can go “They went to the moon with tech like that? Wow they were brave.” How ever far away they get they will always be the modern equivalent of the Santa Maria and the person (or cyborg) who pin points their exact location and salvages them will end up stupidly rich and famous, if only for being insane enough to even attempt it. I can imagine that interview.

    “So person X, you spent most of your life developing a revolutionary new engine, proved all the skeptics wrong when you actually got an anti matter shunt to work, and your first use of it was to salvage two old probes that are obsolete and out of power?”

    “Yer well, I thought being the first interstellar traveler from earth and being responsible for first contact was a bit greedy, hahaha, No on a serious note, we needed to know the navigation systems were that accurate, don’t want to aim for Vega and miss now do we.”

  24. If the probes made it that far, than it is plausible for a man to make it as well. The next issue would be to figure out travel in the heliosphere and through the termination shock.

  25. It seems to me that some of you miss the point of these space craft. As human beings, it is our nature to explore not only our small planet, but the universe itself. To know that these little objects we have created are flying to the edge of our solar system is not only inspiring, but it creates in our mind an image of us as a race reaching out to the stars, beyond our every day lives…..

  26. I think we all really know the outcome. Voyager 1 will encounter a number of alien races who will add to it and make it in to a giant space ship. It will then return to earth and to be the center piece of one of the most boring Scifi movies ever.

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