spaceSpace and Physics

Voyager 1: Boldly Going Where No Man-Made Object Has Gone Before

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Lisa Winter

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52 Voyager 1: Boldly Going Where No Man-Made Object Has Gone Before


Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and is now in interstellar space, exploring the galaxy. It is the most distant manmade object ever and is still sending data back to Earth. Altogether, 11,000 workyears have been dedicated to Voyager’s mission. Its primary mission was to image Jupiter and Saturn and was responsible for some of the first detailed images we had of Saturn’s rings and volcanic activity on Jupiter’s volatile moon Io. Currently, NASA is monitoring Voyager 1 as it explores further into the galaxy than any probe mankind has ever made.

Scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Caltech first suspected that Voyager 1 was in interstellar space in August 2012, but were unable to confirm because the plasma sensor had broken about 30 years ago. In fact, Voyager’s status of having left the solar system has been hotly debated for years, as there is debate about where the solar system officially ends. 


However, a coronal mass ejection from the sun allowed the plasma wave instrument onboard the spacecraft to detect the vibrations of the plasma and interpret them as sound. Comparing plasma vibrations from two different periods about five months apart have confirmed a change in density, revealing that the density dramatically increased, consistent with what should be seen in interstellar space.

Though Voyager is in interstellar space, it is still being influenced by our sun. Scientists do not know how much longer that will be true. Additionally, they aren’t sure when its twin spacecraft Voyager 2 will exit the heliosphere, joining Voyager 1 as it travels further and further away from Earth, towards the unknown.

Onboard Voyager 1 is the Golden Record: a phonograph record that contains information about humanity, should it ever meet intelligent life out in the Universe. It contains information about Earth’s position in the galaxy and our solar system, human anatomy, mathematical and chemistry definitions, as well as greetings from humans in 56 different languages. It also contains written messages and music from around the world, ranging from tribal music to Beethoven to Chuck Berry.

Voyager 1 is currently over 11 billion miles from Earth. Despite its distance and age of the spacecraft, NASA predicts to have about 13 more years of use left out of the vessel. During this time, systems will be shut down one by one until Voyager 1 is out of reach and will drift through the galaxy alone. 


There is currently no intended destination for Voyager 1, though it is on course to reach the star Gliese 445 in about 40,000 years. Unfortunately, the star is a red dwarf that is around 30% the size of our sun. This gives scientists little hope that the planets in that solar system are capable of harboring life. 


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