NASA is slowly powering down the Voyager probes. Here are 18 groundbreaking photos from their 45-year mission.
- 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.
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.
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….
…as well as a thin ring around Jupiter.
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.
Next stop: Saturn
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.
Voyager captured Enceladus, Saturn’s moon, in unprecedented detail.
This picture, taken as the probe flew away, provided a unique view of the planet.
By 1986, Voyager 2 had made it to Uranus
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.
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.
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 Triton’s rough surface.
It captured Triton, Neptune’s moon in unprecedented detail.
Another shows Triton’s southern hemisphere.
It captured Neptune’s rings.
Here, Voyager saw the crescent shape of Neptune’s south pole as it departed.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.