Voyager spacecraft to celebrate 40 years in space

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The oldest operating spacecraft in the world is celebrating its “birthday” this August.

Voyager 2 was launched 40 years ago this month. Voyager 1 premiered 40 years back this September.

The Voyagers are the reason we know so much about Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Together they’ve discovered signs of oceans and volcanoes on Jupiter’s moons. And Voyager 1 was the first spacecraft to leave the solar system and enter interstellar space, or the space between stars.

Voyager 1’s stunning close-up of the Great Red Spot (credit: NASA, Caltech/JPL)

They are not always in expectation to be so accomplish. A Voyager project scientist said the team didn’t know either would still be working at this point.

The craft are so old, only people with knowledge of 1970s software can operate them from Earth.

And the Voyagers aren’t just travelers. They’re also time capsules. Each carries an American flag, pictures and a golden record with sounds from Earth.

Four days after its closest approach, Voyager 1 looked back towards Saturn (credit: NASA)

Scientists estimate they’ll have to turn the Voyagers off by 2030, but the probes could technically last billions of years. That means even after they’re shut down, they can still continue their journeys through space.

History

NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft lifted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on 5 September 1977, a couple weeks after the launch of its sister craft, Voyager 2. Equipped with a toolbox of television cameras, infrared and ultraviolet sensors, and various other instruments, the spacecraft are still travelling through space today. They have power from ‘radioisotope thermoelectric generators’, which convert the heat produced by the radioactive decay of plutonium into electricity.

The spacecraft’s first stop was Jupiter. Voyager 1 began photographing the Jovian giant in January 1979, making its closest approach a couple months later. It took some spectacular shots of the famous Great Red Spot. A perpetual storm that’s large enough to engulf three Earths and discover volcanic activity on Io, Jupiter’s innermost moon. It is the first time that active volcanoes are discovered anywhere else in the Solar System.