The probes Voyager they are true pioneers of science, having gone farther in space than any other man-made object. There NASA originally sent the twin probes on a four-year mission to Jupiter and Saturn in 1977; the probes exceeded all expectations and are still in orbit 45 years later, making their mission NASA’s longest-running.
Space, round trip from Naples: here is Irene, the first capsule with a deployable heat shield
The photos of the solar system they broadcast before NASA shut down their cameras are amazing, but now they face one final problem: Their energy is running out, and scientists are shutting down more instruments on board to conserve energy.
To recap, the Voyager mission included two spacecraft — Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 — that NASA launched in 1977 within months of each other. The launches achieved a rare alignment with some planets which allowed them to enhance space travel. NASA originally built the probes to last at least five years, but their mission has exceeded that duration much longer: on 9 September this year, the probes had been traveling for 45 years. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 reached Jupiter in 1979 and took about 50,000 images of the planet, images that far exceeded the quality of any that scientists have taken from Earth, according to NASA.
They taught scientists important facts about the planet’s atmosphere, magnetic forces, and geology that would otherwise be difficult to decipher. In 1980 and 1981 the probes reached Saturn and the flybys gave scientists an unprecedented view of the planet’s ring structure, atmosphere and moons. Voyager 1 went straight ahead and would not have encountered another planet on its journey out of the solar system.
But Voyager 2 continued its exploration of our closest planets, passing within 50,600 miles of Uranus in January 1986: it discovered two more rings around this planet, revealing that it had at least 11 rings and not 9 as previously believed. In 1989, 12 years after its launch, Voyager 2 passed within 3,000 miles of Neptune and captured images of Neptune’s moon Triton in unprecedented detail. Voyager 2 hasn’t taken any more photos since and since it wouldn’t come across another planet on its current journey, NASA decided to turn off the probe’s cameras after the flyby of Neptune to conserve power for other instruments. As a last photoshoot, Voyager 1 took 60 images of the solar system 4 billion miles away in 1990.
The latest photographs
This is likely to remain the longest-range selfie in human history for some time: a portrait of Earth 4 billion miles away. Even after this image, NASA has turned off Voyager 1’s cameras to save energy but could turn the probes’ cameras back on even if it is not a priority for the mission. Indeed, although the probes no longer send images, they have not stopped sending crucial information about space.
In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first man-made instrument to traverse interstellar space beyond the heliopause, the boundary between our solar system and the rest of the universe. Voyager 2 was the second, crossing the border in 2018. It later revealed that there was an extra border surrounding our solar bubble. The probes continue intent on sending measurements from interstellar space, such as strange buzzes probably coming from the vibrations produced by nearby stars.
Now NASA is planning to shut down the probes’ instruments even more with the hope of prolonging their life until 2030.
But even after all instruments go silent, the probes will still drift away carrying the “gold disc,” which could provide crucial information about humanity and whether or not intelligent extraterrestrial life exists.
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NASA, goodbye to Voyager: the probes of NASA’s longest-running mission shut down after 45 years
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