Three decades of exploration

NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory are celebrating over three decades of flight and space exploration by Voyager 1 and 2. The longevity and success of the spacecraft have secured them a place in the annals of space travel, according to Alan Stern, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a prepared statement.

During their travels, Voyagers flew by Jupiter, Saturn and their moons and were the first to explore Uranus and Neptune. The spacecrafts sent to Earth never before seen photos and data of the planets and moons. JPL’s Ed Massey has only been project manager on the Voyager mission for 10 years, but has followed the spacecrafts throughout their careers.

“I didn’t think it would be going on this long,” Massey said of the Voyagers’ duration, lasting far beyond their projected five-year mission.

“The original goal [of the mission] was for them to fly by and get a close look at the planets, ring structures and moons,” he said.

Massey added that the mission had inspired many of the present explorations as well as future projects. He said that the information that Voyager sent regarding Saturn, its rings and moons encouraged scientists to develop the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini was launched in October of 1997 and in 2004 entered Saturn’s orbit. Since then, it has yielded much information regarding the ringed planet.

Before being sent into space, a personal touch was added to the Voyager spacecraft. Included in the craft is a golden recording of the society of Earth. According to NASA history, John Casani, then Voyager’s project manager, appointed astronomer and author Carl Sagan to gather a mission that could be sent with Voyager.

In the past, plaques had been affixed to spacecraft that depicted where Earth is in the solar system. Voyager, however, carries recorded sounds of our planet, from musicians to animals as well as greetings in several languages.

The spacecraft are now traveling beyond any previous points of exploration. Voyager 1 has crossed the termination shock and into the heliosheath, an area about 8.7 billion miles from the sun.

This is the boundary of our solar system, farther than any other spacecraft has traveled before, and Voyager 2 is not far behind.

Both spacecraft continue to send back data, Massey said.

Although they are aging, he said the Voyagers have power until the year 2020. “They will keep going, unless they are hit by something,” he added.

The real value, however, is not only the data that continues to be sent but what worlds Voyager opened up during its 30 years.

“The Voyagers answered some of our questions and proved that some of our [theories] were wrong,” he said. “I think their [journey] is exciting and is a reflection of what people can do.”

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