Voyager 2: Interstellar

Legendary spacecraft is now outside our solar system, NASA says

The legendary Voyager missions were launched in 1977. Both spacecraft, unmanned, were commissioned by then-President Richard Nixon to explore and photograph the outer planets of the solar system. Nixon “gave them 2 out of 4” initially, as Voyager team members tell it, OK’ing trips to Jupiter and Saturn. Uranus and Neptune, he said, would have to be on a wait-and-see approach.

But Voyager’s engineers weren’t the type to wait and see without having a game plan in their back pocket. Embracing an orbital alignment that only happens once every 130 years, the team prepared to “slingshot” both probes around each planet towards the next. The craft would use Jupiter’s gravity to sling itself towards Saturn, Saturn’s toward Uranus, and so on. This method cut the space travel time down exponentially, and also allowed them to plan ahead. Voyager 1’s mission was technically finished at Saturn’s famed moon Titan, which it was designated to photograph closely and then move on, creating a trajectory that would not take it past any other planets. This meant Voyager 1 had to succeed at Titan for Voyager 2 to take its separate path, which would lead it on to Uranus and Neptune.

The latter spacecraft, which achieved this in memorable fashion, was still in radio communication with its host as of this newsletter. Truly one of the more amazing feats of engineering, NASA’s Voyagers have now both reached interstellar space: the area outside our solar system.

One of the more interesting stories about the Voyager missions acutely involves repair, mechanics, and resourcefulness. Aluminum foil was used to buffer part of the spacecraft in an impromptu move on the ground. Later, when the camera appeared to lose connection around its approach to Saturn, a crucial juncture in the mission, engineers diagnosed a lubrication issue by jogging the camera’s platform mechanism—powered by electric motors—to get it oriented again.

*The video in this post was used in EA’s Direct & Current e-newsletter as our Video of the Week last edition.

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