With Humanity in mind: Where is Voyager 1 now14th Jun 2022
2022 marks the 45th anniversary of NASA launching one of its most successful projects, the automatic spacecraft Voyager 1. The probe not only coped with the interplanetary mission brilliantly but also provided scientists with a large amount of valuable information about the heliosphere and interstellar space. Soon spacecraft may fail, but even after that, it will continue to serve for the benefit of humanity, carrying out a diplomatic mission. And while NASA knows the Voyager 1 location and what is happening to the probe, the interest in Voyager persists. Let’s find out more about this spacecraft.
Where did Voyager 1 go?
The primary mission was to fly around Saturn and Jupiter to study their satellite rings, magnetic fields, and weather. Voyager did an excellent job with this task, providing detailed images of the planets. At the time, no one could boast of such results, not even the USA’s main competitor, the USSR.
The second part of the mission was to search for and explore the boundaries of near-solar space and measure particles in the solar wind. Then, upon successful completion of the task, the probe had to move further and begin studying the interstellar medium. Skipping ahead, let’s say that the spacecraft exceeded all expectations, both in achieving the tasks set by the scientists and in the duration of work in deep space.
When did Voyager 1 launch?
Voyager 1 was launched on a Titan IIIE rocket from Cape Canaveral on September 5, 1977. Interestingly, there were two missions, Voyager 1 and 2. And the second Voyager was launched 16 days earlier than the first, on August 20.
It would be more logical to number the spacecraft in reverse, but the numbering order was defined by which spacecraft would be the first to meet Jupiter. So, Voyager 1 was supposed to reach Jupiter on March 5, 1979, and Voyager 2 — four months later, on July 9 of the same year.
How big is Voyager 1?
The spacecraft had a launch weight of 798 kg, a length of 2.5 m, and a payload mass of 86 kg. The body is a ten-facet prism, equipped with two antennas, a rod for electric generators, a rod with scientific instruments, and a separate rod for a magnetometer. The casing and equipment are supplemented by thermal insulation, heat shields, and plastic hoods.
Considering that the probe would operate far from the Sun, using solar panels would be pointless. Power is provided by three radioisotope thermoelectric generators operating on plutonium-238 oxide.
How fast is it travelling?
The speed of Voyager-1 at launch was 17 km/s, so it quickly reached Jupiter and began surveying the planet in January 1979. It approached Saturn in November 1980.
In August 2012, the probe became the first spacecraft to reach interstellar space. This fact was confirmed when the sensors recorded the influence of coronal mass ejections from the Sun in the form of a “tsunami wave”.
In 2017, the probe was recognized as the fastest spacecraft to leave our solar system. Even though the New Horizons probe, with a higher launch speed, was sent to Pluto in January 2006, Voyager 1 has beaten it in speed thanks to carefully calculated gravity manoeuvres. NASA claims that the spacecraft travels an average of 523 million kilometres a year.
How far away is it?
Voyager 1 is the most distant spacecraft ever launched by a man from Earth into space. We don’t really know exactly where the craft is now. According to NASA official data, as of February 17, 1998, the probe moved 10.4 billion km away from our planet. Today, Voyager 1 is more than 23 billion km away from Earth. The distance between Voyager and the Earth differs in different periods of the year. This is because the speed of the planet in its orbit around the Sun exceeds the speed of the spacecraft moving away from it.
In 2013, some media sources wrote that Voyager 1 will be leaving the solar system. However, this information was wrong. In fact, the probe only went beyond the solar wind. It will leave the solar system in about 30,000 years.
Is Voyager 1 still transmitting?
Many people ask this reasonable question: Did we lose contact with Voyager 1 because it has been ploughing the expanses of space for almost half a century! The probe made its last image of the Earth in 1990. The picture was called A Pale Blue Dot. Voyager 1 was about 4 billion miles from Earth when it captured its portrait. Caught in the centre of scattered light rays (the result of shooting so close to the Sun), the Earth appears as a tiny dot of light, a crescent moon only 0.12 pixels in size. After that, the ship’s cameras were turned off in order to save energy for the operation of other equipment and continue with the interstellar space exploration.
So is Voyager 1 still active? Yes! In 2021, the probe transmitted data on the detection of interstellar sounds and the measurement of the matter density in space.
When will Voyager 1 die?
Voyager’s energy sources are constantly cooling and depleted, so today, they can no longer properly maintain the static temperature of the hardware. There are still four devices operating on board. However, when the power runs out, the probe will stop transmitting signals to the ground station.
NASA engineers claim that the spacecraft retains around 70% of its fuel is left on the ship, which should keep it operational until 2025. However, no one knows what other factors may affect the probe’s functionality in outer space.
If everything goes well, in about 40,000 years, it should fly 1.6 light-years (15 trillion km) from the Gliese 445 star in the constellation Giraffe. Further on, Voyager 1 is likely to roam the Milky Way galaxy forever.
Interesting facts about Voyager 1
Even after Voyager 1 cuts its cord with humanity it will continue to carry out an important diplomatic mission. The spacecraft has a gilded plate, called Voyager Golden Record, attached to its body. It contains a message for aliens in fifty different languages. The recording also carries music, sounds of nature, photographs of people, the Earth, cars, and aircraft. It carries the coordinates of the Earth so that another civilization can discover its location. In other words, Voyager 1 can still serve the benefit of mankind even outside of the Solar system.
What happened to Voyager-1 in May 2022?
In May 2022, NASA recorded strange signals from Voyager-1. Mission specialists managed to find out that the device is still operating normally, but the readings of the articulation and attitude control system of the probe (AACS) do not reflect the real situation on board.
The AACS module is responsible for pointing the Voyager-1 antenna exactly at Earth, allowing the probe to send telemetry data. However, suddenly this data started to display incorrectly. Subsequent diagnostics revealed that, for some reason, AACS switched to another computer that stopped working several years ago, which distorted newly transmitted data. In August, NASA reported fixing this problem. A command was sent to AACS to switch to the correct computer, and it began to transmit correct telemetry data again. NASA suggests that AACS received an erroneous command from another computer (there are three of them on board Voyager-1), which may indicate that the main cause of the failure is somewhere else on the ship.
“We are happy that telemetry is back,” said the head of the mission, Suzanne Dodd. “Our team will perform a full read of the AACS memory and analyse its operation, which will help determine the exact cause that led to the distortion of the telemetry data.” At the same time, Dodd added that mission engineers do not see the incident as a long-term threat to Voyager-1 and are generally cautiously optimistic, although they still have to do more research.
Voyager 1 timeline
- 1977 – Launch year of Voyager 1.
- 1979 – The first detailed images of Jupiter, evidence of the first active volcanoes outside the Earth present on the Io satellite.
- 1981 – Discovery of three of Saturn’s satellites – Pandora, Prometheus and Atlas.
- 1982 – Correction of the engines operation to maximize the probe’s distance from Earth to put it outside the solar system.
- 1990 – The first “family portrait” of the solar system, including the Earth.
- 1998 – Voyager became the furthest from Earth human-made object.
- 2005 – It overcame the last shock wave, which was formed when the interstellar wind collided with the solar one. After that, no terrestrial computer can read his data.
- 2012 – Became the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space. Measured the plasma readings in interstellar space with maximum accuracy.
- 2017 – NASA engineers activated the probe’s thrusters to correct the spacecraft’s course and extend its lifespan.
- 2021 – Voyager 1 recent discoveries confirmed the scientists’ guess that there is more activity in the interstellar gas than in the solar wind.
- 2022 – In May, Voyager began sending incorrect telemetry data back to Earth, allegedly due to a computer system malfunction. Three months later, NASA reported that the problem had been fixed.