Old Man Voyager
Thirty-five years ago today, NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft, the first Voyager spacecraft to launch, departed on a journey that would make it the only spacecraft to visit Uranus and Neptune and the longest-operating NASA spacecraft ever. Voyager 2 and its twin, Voyager 1, that launched 16 days later on Sept. 5, 1977, are still going strong, hurtling away from our sun. Mission managers are eagerly anticipating the day when they break on through to the other side - the space between stars. The Voyager 2 spacecraft is currently in extended mission, tasked with locating and studying the boundaries of the Solar System, including the Kuiper belt, the heliosphere and interstellar space. The primary mission ended December 31, 1989 after encountering the Jovian system in 1979, Saturnian system in 1980, Uranian system in 1986, and the Neptunian system in 1989. It was the first probe to provide detailed images of the outer gas giants.
Voyager 2 is currently transmitting scientific data at about 160 bits per second. Information about continuing telemetry exchanges with Voyager 2 is available from Voyager Weekly Reports.
As of July 25, 2012, Voyager 2 is traveling at 15.447 km/s relative to the Sun, and currently at a distance of about 99.13 astronomical units (1.4830×1010 km) from the Sun, at −55.29° declination and 19.888 h right ascension, and is also at an ecliptic latitude of −34.0 degrees, placing it in the constellation Telescopium as observed from Earth. This location places it deep in the scattered disc, and traveling outward at roughly 3.264 AU per year. It is more than twice as far from the Sun as Pluto, and far beyond the perihelion of 90377 Sedna, but not yet beyond the outer limits of the orbit of the dwarf planet Eris.
"Even 35 years on, our rugged Voyager spacecraft are poised to make new discoveries as we eagerly await the signs that we've entered interstellar space," said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "Voyager results turned Jupiter and Saturn into full, tumultuous worlds, their moons from faint dots into distinctive places, and gave us our first glimpses of Uranus and Neptune up-close. We can't wait for Voyager to turn our models of the space beyond our sun into the first observations from interstellar space."
Voyager 2 became the longest-operating spacecraft on Aug. 13, 2012, surpassing
Pioneer 6, which launched on Dec. 16, 1965, and sent its last signal back to NASA's Deep Space Network on Dec. 8, 2000. (It operated for 12,758 days.)
Scientists eagerly awaiting the entry of the two Voyagers into interstellar space have recently seen changes from Voyager 1 in two of the three observations that are expected to be different in interstellar space. The prevalence of high-energy particles streaming in from outside our solar system has jumped, and the prevalence of lower-energy particles originating from inside our solar system has briefly dipped, indicating an increasing pace of change in Voyager 1's environment. Voyager team scientists are now analyzing data on the direction of the magnetic field, which they believe will change upon entry into interstellar space.
Voyager 1 is not heading towards any particular star, but in about 40,000 years it will pass within 1.6 light years of the star AC+79 3888, which is at present in the constellation Camelopardalis. That star is generally moving towards our Solar System at about 119 km/s (430,000 km/h; 270,000 mph).
Voyager 1 also took the mission's last image: the famous solar system family portrait that showed our Earth as a pale blue dot.
Voyager 2 is about 9 billion miles (15 billion kilometers) away from the sun, heading in a southerly direction. Voyager 1 is about 11 billion miles away from the sun, heading in a northerly direction. For the last five years, both spacecraft have been exploring the outer layer of the heliosphere, the giant bubble of charged particles the sun blows around itself.
"We continue to listen to Voyager 1 and 2 nearly every day," said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The two spacecraft are in great shape for having flown through Jupiter's dangerous radiation environment and having to endure the chill of being so far away from our sun."
For further information see Voyager.
Launch image via NASA.