Voyager 1 nears edge of solar system after 33 years in space

voyager 1 grand tour

Voyager 1, a NASA deep space probe, has reached a region in the solar system 11 billion miles from Earth where the solar wind blows out. Image: CC Flying Singer/Flickr

Voyager 1, a nuclear powered space probe launched by NASA in 1977, is approaching the boundary of the solar system. In the past 33 years, Voyager 1 has been on a mission dubbed the “Grand Tour” to explore the solar system’s outer planets. As Voyager 1 journeys to the stars, it carries the Voyager Golden Record, a collection of sounds and images of life and culture on Earth.

Voyager 1 approaches interstellar space

Voyager 1 is traveling into deep space at a velocity of 38,185 mph and was about 11 billion miles from Earth on Dec. 14. It has entered a region of space called the heliosheath. The heliosheath is the limit of the range of the solar wind. The solar wind is made up of charged particles emanating from the sun that create a bubble called the heliosphere. NASA scientists know Voyager 1 has exited the heliosphere and passed into the heliosheath because instruments on board measure the velocity of the solar wind, which has diminished to zero. Voyager 1 will make its final exit from the heliosheath into interstellar space in about four more years.

Voyager 1’s Grand Tour

Voyager 1 was launched Sept. 5, 1977, on a mission to take advantage of a convenient alignment of the outer planets. Employing the newly-discovered technique of “gravity assist,” Voyager 1 would use the gravity of Jupiter to slingshot farther into outer space at a higher rate of speed. Voyager 1 beamed the first high-resolution photos of Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1980. In 1990 Voyager 1 took its last image — the “family portrait” mosaic of the solar system that featured a distant Earth against the black background of space called the “Pale Blue Dot.” The nuclear-powered probe is expected to keep transmitting data until 2025. Currently Voyager 1 radio signals take more than 16 hours to reach Earth.

Voyager Golden Record

If Voyager 1 happens to encounter aliens in its travels, the Voyager Golden Record will offer a sampling of life on Earth circa 1977. The Voyager Golden Record is a gold-plated copper phonograph record complete with turntable and stylus containing data about the solar system and its planets, plus images of life on Earth from humans to insects. Audio includes the sound of ocean surf, birds singing and music ranging from Beethoven to Chuck Berry.


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