June 22, 2022

NASA is slowly powering down the Voyager probes. Here are 18 groundbreaking photos from their 45-year mission.

The thumb is a collage of four images taken by the Voyager probes that are featured in the piece.

This montage shows examples of striking images of the solar system Voyager 1 and 2 took on their missions.
  • Almost 45 years after their launch, Voyager 1 and 2 are still operating.
  • But with power dwindling, the probes may soon reach the end of their scientific mission
  • Here are 18 pictures the probes took over the course of their forty-plus-year journey. 

The Voyager probes are pioneers of science, making it further into space than any other man-made object.

NASA originally sent the twin probes on a four-year mission to Jupiter and Saturn in 1977; they exceeded all expectations, and are still going 45 years later.

Amazing photos of the solar system are among the achievements they beamed back before NASA shut the cameras down.

But now, they face a terminal problem: their power is running out, and NASA scientists are starting to shut down even more instruments on board to conserve energy.

As they near the end of their mission, here are 18 images from Voyager that changed science:

The Voyager probes were designed to visit Jupiter and Saturn.

A schematic shows the trajectories of Voyager probes early on in their mission.

The voyager probes wizzed through the solar system taking unprecedented pictures.

The Voyager mission included two probes — Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 — which NASA launched in 1977 within a few months of each other.

The launches capitalized on a rare alignment of planets that allowed them to turbocharge their journeys into space.

NASA originally built the probes to last five years, but have exceeded that lifespan many times.

This is what Voyager 1 saw on its approach to Jupiter.

This time-lapse video records Voyager 1's approach to Jupiter during a period of over 60 Jupiter days.

A time-lapse Voyager 1 took as it approached Jupiter in 1979.

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 reached Jupiter in 1979. They took about 50,000 pictures of the planet in total, which greatly exceeded the quality of the pictures scientists took from Earth, according to NASA.

The pictures taught scientists important facts about the planet’s atmosphere, magnetic forces, and geology that would have been difficult to decipher otherwise.

The probes discovered two new moons orbiting Jupiter: Thebe and Metis….

Jupiter and two of its moons is shown in a picture taken by Voyager.

Jupiter and two of its moons, as seen by the Voyager probes.

…as well as a thin ring around Jupiter.

Jupiter's ring is shown, as taken by Voyager.

A false-color image of Jupiter’s ring, discovered by the Voyager probes.

The probe captured this picture as it was looking back at the planet backlit by the Sun. 

Voyager 1’s biggest discovery was volcanic activity at the surface of Io, one of Jupiter’s moons.

Volcanic activity captured on the surface of Io, Jupiter's moon, by the Voyager probes.

A picture taken by the Voyager probes uncovered volcanoes at the surface of Io.

Next stop: Saturn

A false colou image of Saturn taken by Voyager 2 shows characteristics of the planet's athmosphere.

NASA used three Voyager 2 images — taken through ultraviolet, violet and green filters — to make this photograph.

In 1980 and 1981, the probes reached Saturn. The flyby gave scientists unprecedented insight into the planet’s ring structure, atmosphere, and moons.

Voyager taught scientists about the detail of Saturn’s rings.

Saturn's rings are shown in false color in a picture taken by a Voyager probe in 1981.

A Voyager probe took this false-color image of Saturn’s rings on August 23, 1981.

Voyager captured Enceladus, Saturn’s moon, in unprecedented detail.

Encheladus, Saturn's moon, seen in unprecedented detail by Voyager.

Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, as seen by Voyager.

This picture, taken as the probe flew away, provided a unique view of the planet.

Saturn as seen by Voyager 1 as it looked back on Nov. 16, 1980, four days after the spacecraft flew past the planet.

Voyager 1 looked back to Saturn on November 16, 1980, to give this unique perspective on its rings, partially covered in shadow.

By 1986, Voyager 2 had made it to Uranus

Neptune, seen in true and false color by Voyager.

Voyager 2 captured these images, in true color (left) and false-color (right) of Neptune in 1986.

Voyager 1 continued straight on and would not come across another planet on its journey out of the solar system. 

But Voyager 2 kept on its exploration of our nearest planets, passing within 50,600 miles of Uranus in January 1986. 

It discovered an extra two rings around Uranus, revealing the planet had at least 11, not 9. 

Its pictures of Uranus’ largest moons also uncovered 11 previously unseen moons.

Miranda, Uranus's moon, seen by Voyager.

The Voyager probes’ pictures of Miranda, Uranus’ moon, revealed its complicated geological past.

Here is a picture of a Miranda, Uranus’s sixth-biggest moon.

Voyager 2 was the first spacecraft to observe Neptune from a close distance.

Neptune seen in false color by Voyager

Neptune, seen in false color by Voyager 2 in 1989. Here, the red or white coloring means that sunlight is passing through a methane-rich atmosphere.

In 1989, 12 years after its launch, Voyager 2 passed within 3,000 miles of Neptune. 

A picture shows the blue Neptune in full.

A picture shows the blue Neptune in full.

Neptune, as seen by Voyager 2 in 1989.

A picture shows Triton’s rough surface.

A picture shows Triton's rough surface.

Triton, as seen by Voyager 2 in 1989.

It captured Triton, Neptune’s moon in unprecedented detail. 

Another shows Triton’s southern hemisphere.

A picture shows Triton's southern hemisphere, which looks uneven.

Neptune, as seen by Voyager 2 in 1989.

It captured Neptune’s rings.

Neptune's rings, seen by Voyager

Neptune’s rings.

Here, Voyager saw the crescent shape of Neptune’s south pole as it departed.

the crescent shape of Neptune south pole is seen by voyager as it departs.

Neptune, as seen by Voyager 2 in 1989.

Voyager 2 would never take pictures again. Since it wouldn’t come across another planet on its ongoing journey, NASA switched off its cameras after its flyby of Neptune to conserve energy for other instruments. 

Voyager took 60 images of the solar system from about 4 billion miles away.

Voyager 1's solar system portrait, made up of 60 images taken from 4 billion miles away.

Voyager 1 provided the solar system’s portrait in 1990.

As its last photographic hurrah, Voyager 1 took 60 images of the solar system from 4 billion miles away in 1990. 

It gave us the Earth’s most distant self-portrait, dubbed the “pale blue dot.”

voyager pale blue dot

This is the Earth, seen from 4 billion miles away.

This is likely to remain the longest-range selfie in the history of humankind for some time: a portrait of the Earth from 4 billion miles away. 

After this picture, NASA switched off Voyager 1’s cameras to save energy. NASA could switch the probes’ cameras back on, but it is not a priority for the mission. 

Beyond the solar system

voyager 1 nasa in the heliopause

This artist’s concept shows the general locations of NASA’s two Voyager spacecraft. Voyager 1 (top) has sailed beyond our solar bubble into interstellar space, the space between stars.

Though the probes are no longer sending pictures, they haven’t stopped sending crucial information about space. 

In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first human-made instrument to cross into interstellar space by passing the heliopause, the boundary between our solar system and the rest of the universe.

Voyager 2 was the second, crossing the boundary in 2018. It then revealed there was an extra boundary surrounding our solar bubble.

The probes keep sending back measurements from interstellar space, like weird hums likely coming from vibrations made by neighboring stars.

Even after their instruments are switched off, the probes’ mission continues.

The two sides of NASA's golden record onboard the Voyager probes are shown here.

A collage shows the two sides of NASA’s golden record, which is onboard the Voyager probes.

Now NASA is starting to switch off the probes’ last instruments with the hope of extending their life to the 2030s.

But even after all instruments become quiet, the probes will still drift off carrying the golden record, which could provide crucial information about humanity should intelligent extraterrestrial life exist and should it come across the probes. 

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