A Message in a Bottle: The Voyager Missions
On November 5, 2018, Voyager 2 joined its twin Voyager 1 and entered into interstellar space. This is only the second spacecraft to accomplish this feat and most likely the only spacecrafts to do so for a long time, definitely not within my lifetime. It is hard to fathom the distance the two probes have traveled and the scenes they have witnessed on their journey. We have gotten peeks along the way as they explored the outer solar system and have been blessed by the observations and data they have sent back. The information that they gave us changed astronomy and planetary science in profound ways.
The Voyager missions began with their launch in 1977. There was a push from the scientific community to get approval, everything set up, and to send out these spacecrafts out on time. This was because that year there was the perfect planetary alignment-one that only comes around every 175 years-that allowed a spacecraft to zoom from planet to planet using gravitational assists allowing for maximum distance with minimum time and power. Thankfully, the mission was able to launch in time to take advantage of the planetary line up and the probes were sent on their way. Originally, it was planned that Voyager 1 would visit Jupiter and Saturn and Voyager 2 would do the same. There were people who didn’t faith that a spacecraft could make it to the farthest planets successfully, but the scientists and engineers working on the mission held out hope. The trajectory of Voyager 2 was set so it would be able to head to Uranus and Neptune if it ended up being possible for the probe to continue. The space crafts were able to make it to Jupiter and Saturn and still functioned with no problems, so it was decided that Voyager 2 would be sent on to our two farthest planets. Meanwhile, Voyager 1 continued onward through interplanetary space collecting data and sending it back. Voyager 1 flew by Saturn in November 1980 and Voyager 2 reached Neptune in August 1889. Since then, the spacecrafts have been cruising on and have reached interstellar space. Now instead of sending back data on the planets, they are helping us to understand interplanetary and interstellar space, and helping us to learn about the outermost reaches of our Sun’s influence.
Few Missions have come close to exceeding the expectations that the Voyagers have. Nor have few missions given as much to history and humanity as these two spacecrafts. Both probes were only supposed to last 5 years…they are going on thirty eight. Both probes were only supposed to visit two planets…they made it to all four. Though perhaps even greater than all the expectations they exceeded and the new knowledge they gave us was the perspective they gifted us. On February 14, 1990, Voyager 1 turned its camera to face inward, looking back at the planet it came from and took a picture. This picture, seen below is known as the Pale Blue Dot. Among the stripes of sunbeams is a pale speck of light that is Earth, taken from more than 4 billion miles away. This picture provided humanity with the most humbling perspective. The Voyager missions gave us a tool to see not only the most mysterious and grandest of planets in our solar system, but also one of the smallest and most familiar places in our world. This is arguably one of the best gifts humanity has ever gotten and encapsulates everything about why we explore in the first place. We are humans, we are curious and we want to understand our place in the universe.
One last thing that is important to the story of the Voyager missions is the precious cargo they hold. Since it was known that the Voyagers would one day leave this solar system and will in the end most likely outlive our civilization, a golden record was attached to each spacecraft. this record contains the sounds of Earth and depictions of how to play and decode the record. This is our message in a bottle that we are sending out into the cosmos in case some day it reaches an advanced civilization that is capable of understanding our message about our existence. In millions of years when humans may be long gone, it is possible that these artifacts will be the remains to tell the cosmos our story.
Solar System Exploration: Pale Blue Dot, https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/resources/15836/pale-blue-dot/
Voyager Going Interstellar: Inspiring Quotes from Carl Sagan, https://voyagergoinginterstellar.space/inspiring-quotes-carl-sagan/
Voyager: Planetary Voyage, https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/science/planetary-voyage/