Science

Voyager 2: the iconic spacecraft still exploring 45 years later

Voyager 2 was the first of two twin probes sent by NASA to explore the outer planets of our solar system.

The probe was launched aboard the Titan IIIE-Centaur from the Cape Canaveral Spaceport, completed on 41 (formerly Launch Complex 41) on 2 August. On September 20, 1977, his twin spacecraft Voyager 1 launched about two weeks later on September 5. NASA planned for the Voyager spacecraft to take advantage of the outer planet alignment, which only happens every 176 years. Alignment would allow both probes to move from one planet to another, with the force of gravity helping them along the way.

While Voyager 1 focused on Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 2 visited both of these planets and also traveled to Uranus and Neptune. The Voyager 2 mission to these last two planets will be the only human visit in the 20th century.

Voyager 2 is now traveling through interstellar space. In early November 2018, NASA announced that Voyager 2 had crossed the outer edge of our solar system (Voyager 1 crossed the edge of interstellar space in 2012). count!

Voyager 2 as a backup

Engineers are working on Voyager 2. Photo taken March 23, 1977. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) (will open in a new tab)

While there wasn’t enough money in Voyager 2’s budget to guarantee that it would still work when flying past Uranus and Neptune, its trajectory was still designed to pass those planets. If the spacecraft were still in operation after Saturn, NASA might try to photograph other planets.

Voyager 2 was ready as a backup for Voyager 1. If Voyager 1 failed to capture Jupiter and Saturn, NASA was prepared to change Voyager 2’s trajectory to follow Voyager 1’s trajectory. This would disable the Uranus-Neptune option, but would still retain the ability to capture images.

However, the back-up plan never came to fruition because Voyager 1 made many discoveries on Jupiter and Saturn, working well enough for NASA to fulfill its original plans for Voyager 2.

Flyby of Jupiter and Saturn

The Great Red Spot of Jupiter, taken by Voyager 2 when the spacecraft was 3.72 million miles (6 million kilometers) away. (Image credit: NASA/JPL) (will open in a new tab)

Voyager 2 reached Jupiter in 1979, two years after launch from Cape Canaveral. Since Voyager 1 had just passed through the system four months earlier, the arrival of Voyager 2 allowed NASA to take valuable comparative pictures of Jupiter and its moons. He recorded changes in the Great Red Spot, and also examined some of the surfaces of the Moon in more detail.

Voyager 2 took pictures of many of Jupiter’s moons. Among his most impressive finds were pictures of the icy moon of Europa. Voyager 2 took detailed photographs of ice cracks on the Moon from 128,000 miles (205,996 km) away and found no elevation changes anywhere on the Moon’s surface.

Proving that there are many satellites around the outer planets, Voyager 2 accidentally photographed Adrastea, Jupiter’s small moon, just months after Voyager 1 discovered Jupiter’s other two moons, Thebe and Metis. Adrastea is exceptionally small, only about 19 miles (30.5 km) in diameter by conservative estimates.

Composite image of Saturn’s C-ring taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft when it was 1.7 million miles (2.7 million kilometers) away from the gas giant. The image was composed of three separate images taken through ultraviolet, transparent and green filters. (Image credit: NASA/JPL) (will open in a new tab)

Saturn was next in line. Voyager 2 became the third spacecraft to visit Saturn when it reached its closest point to the ringed planet on August 2. December 26, 1981 and took hundreds of pictures of the planet, its satellites and rings. Suspecting that Saturn may be surrounded by many rings, scientists conducted an experiment. They watched the star Delta Scorpii for almost two and a half hours as it passed through the plane of the rings. As expected, the twinkling starlight revealed rings up to 330 feet (100 meters) in diameter.

Flyby of Uranus and Neptune

This image taken by Voyager 2 shows Neptune’s blue-green atmosphere. (Image credit: NASA/JPL) (will open in a new tab)

Voyager 2 made its closest approach to Uranus on January 2. On December 24, 1986, it became the first spacecraft to visit the ice giant. The probe made several observations of the planet, noting that the south pole faces the sun and that its atmosphere is about 85% hydrogen and 15% helium.

In addition, Voyager 2 discovered rings around Uranus, 10 new satellites and a magnetic field that, oddly enough, deviated from the planet’s axis by 55 degrees. Astronomers are still puzzled over the orientation of Uranus.

Photographs of Miranda’s moon taken by Voyager 2 showed that it is perhaps the strangest satellite in the solar system. Its messy surface looks like it has been knocked over and broken several times.

The spacecraft then made its way to Neptune, reaching its closest point on August 2. December 25, 1989. He flew about 3,000 miles above the planet’s upper atmosphere and discovered five new moons, as well as four rings around the planet. Remarkably, Voyager 2 is currently the only man-made object that, according to NASA, flew near the intriguing ice giant. (will open in a new tab).

Voyager 2 interstellar adventure

The illustration shows the positions of NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes. On December 10, 2018, NASA announced that Voyager 2 had joined Voyager 1 in interstellar space. The two are now outside the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends beyond Pluto’s orbit. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) (will open in a new tab)

On November 5, 2018, Voyager 2 crossed the heliopause, the boundary between the heliosphere and interstellar space. At this stage, the probe was 119 astronomical units from the Sun. (One AU is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun, which is about 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers.) Voyager 1 flew almost the same distance, 121.6 AU.

According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) (will open in a new tab)Voyager 2 has enough fuel to keep its instruments running until at least 2025. By then, the spacecraft will be approximately 11.4 billion miles (18.4 billion kilometers) away.

But Voyager 2 is destined to roam the Milky Way long after its instruments have failed.

In about 40,000 years, Voyager 2 will pass within 1.7 light years (9.7 trillion miles) of the star Ross 248, according to NASA JPL. The space wanderer will continue its journey through interstellar space and pass 4.3 light years ( 25 trillion miles) from Sirius in about 296,000 years.

Voyager 2 legacy

Voyager 2’s observations paved the way for subsequent missions. The Cassini spacecraft, which visited Saturn between 2004 and 2017, found evidence of liquid water on the planet’s icy moons decades after Voyagers first detected the possible presence of water. Cassini also mapped the Titan moon after Voyagers photographed its thick atmosphere.

Voyager 2’s images of Uranus and Neptune also serve as the basis for ongoing observations of these giant planets. In 2014, astronomers were surprised to see giant storms on Uranus, a big change from when Voyager 2 flew by the planet in 1986.

Additional Information

To find out where Voyager 2 is currently located, you can check the status of the mission with NASA resources. (will open in a new tab). Learn more about the iconic spacecraft at the National Air and Space Museum. (will open in a new tab).

Bibliography

NASA. Read more: Voyager 2. NASA. Retrieved August 17, 2022 from www.solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/voyager-2/in-depth/.

NASA. Voyager – mission status. NASA. Retrieved August 17, 2022 from www.voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/status/.

NASA. Voyager is an interstellar mission. NASA. Retrieved August 17, 2022 from www. voyageur.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/interstellar-mission

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