NASA’s Voyager 1 nearing solar system edge

The identical spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, were launched by NASA in the summer of 1977 and programmed to pass by Jupiter and Saturn on different paths.

Washington: The NASA has announced that Voyager 1, which was launched in 1977, has now sailed to the edge of the solar system and is expected to punch its way into interstellar space in the coming months or years.

The identical spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, were launched by NASA in the summer of 1977 and programmed to pass by Jupiter and Saturn on different paths. Voyager 2 went on to visit Uranus and Neptune, completing the “Grand Tour of the Solar System”.

University of Colorado Boulder scientists, who designed and built identical instruments for Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, were also stunned when the spacecraft began sending back data to Earth.

The discoveries by Voyager started piling up, Twenty-three new planetary moons at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon, Io – Jupiter’s ring system, organic smog shrouding Saturn’s moon, Titan – the braided, intertwined structure of Saturn’s rings, the solar system’s fastest winds and nitrogen geysers spewing from Neptune’s moon, Triton.

Charlie Hord, a former planetary scientist at CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, and principal investigator for a time on the LASP instrument known as a photopolarimeter built for Voyager, still shakes his head in wonder as he recalls some of the discoveries.

The LASP photopolarimeter, a small telescope that measured the intensity and polarization of light at different wavelengths, was used for a variety of observations during the mission.

A guitar player himself who performs jazz and Big Band music with a trio that visits Boulder retirement homes, Hord recalls that JPL threw the Voyager team a party to celebrate the end of Voyager 2`s Grand Tour as it passed by Neptune in 1989.

In 1990, Voyager 1 turned around one last time and took a portrait of the solar system, a sequence of photos that revealed six of the nine planets in an orbital dance. From nearly 4 billion miles away, Earth took up only a single pixel.

“To me, Voyager was the most fun and interesting planetary mission ever,” Hord said.

According to Larry Esposito, Senior Research Associate Ian Stewart, the biggest discovery by CU-Boulder``s Voyager photopolarimeter team was the intricate structure of Saturn’s F ring, a ring he discovered in 1979 using data from NASA Pioneer 11 mission.

The CU-Boulder team determined the faint F ring was made up of three separate ringlets that appeared to be braided together, and that the inner and outer limits of the ring were controlled by two small “shepherd satellites”.

In addition, Esposito also said that density waves, ripple-like features in the rings caused by the influence of Saturn’s moons, allowed the team to estimate the weight and age of Saturn’s rings.

Rocketing at roughly 35,000 miles per hour, Voyager 1 will float within 9.3 trillion miles of the star AC+793888 in the constellation Camelopardalis in about 40,000 years.

In 296,000 years, Voyager 2 will pass within 25 trillion miles of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Perhaps on the way, the spacecraft will encounter some musically inclined aliens up for a little Bach, Beethoven or Berry.


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