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Voyager 1 and 2: The Interstellar Mission

An image of Neptune taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft.

An image of Neptune taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft. Image credit: NASA

NASA has beautiful photos of every planet in our solar system. We even have images of faraway Neptune , as you can see in the photo above.

Neptune is much too distant for an astronaut to travel there with a camera. So, how do we have pictures from distant locations in our solar system? Our photographers were two spacecraft, called Voyager 1 and Voyager 2!

An artist’s rendering of one of the Voyager spacecraft.

An artist’s rendering of one of the Voyager spacecraft. Image credit: NASA

The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft launched from Earth in 1977. Their mission was to explore Jupiter and Saturn —and beyond to the outer planets of our solar system. This was a big task. No human-made object had ever attempted a journey like that before.

The two spacecraft took tens of thousands of pictures of Jupiter and Saturn and their moons. The pictures from Voyager 1 and 2 allowed us to see lots of things for the first time. For example, they captured detailed photos of Jupiter's clouds and storms, and the structure of Saturn's rings .

Image of storms on Jupiter taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

Image of storms on Jupiter taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft. Image credit: NASA

Voyager 1 and 2 also discovered active volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io , and much more. Voyager 2 also took pictures of Uranus and Neptune. Together, the Voyager missions discovered 22 moons.

Since then, these spacecraft have continued to travel farther away from us. Voyager 1 and 2 are now so far away that they are in interstellar space —the region between the stars. No other spacecraft have ever flown this far away.

Where will Voyager go next?

Watch this video to find out what's beyond our solar system!

Both spacecraft are still sending information back to Earth. This data will help us learn about conditions in the distant solar system and interstellar space.

The Voyagers have enough fuel and power to operate until 2025 and beyond. Sometime after this they will not be able to communicate with Earth anymore. Unless something stops them, they will continue to travel on and on, passing other stars after many thousands of years.

Each Voyager spacecraft also carries a message. Both spacecraft carry a golden record with scenes and sounds from Earth. The records also contain music and greetings in different languages. So, if intelligent life ever find these spacecraft, they may learn something about Earth and us as well!

A photo of the golden record that was sent into space on both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.

A photo of the golden record that was sent into space on both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

More about our universe!

A sign that says welcome to interstellar space

Where does interstellar space begin?

an illustration arrows pointing at stars on a dark sky

Searching for other planets like ours

an illustrated game box cover for the Galactic Explorer game

Play Galactic Explorer!

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Illustration of a game controller that links to the Space Place Games menu.

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Voyager 1 enters interstellar space in an illustration. The NASA spacecraft officially crossed into the space between the stars in 2012.

Both of NASA's Voyager spacecraft are now interstellar. Where to next?

Launched in 1977, the twin probes will likely outlive the sun. Find out what star systems they’ll meet as they head deeper into the galaxy.

NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft have been traveling the interstellar road for more than 40 years, sweeping past the giant planets of the outer solar system before heading to the very fringes of our sun’s domain. Now, one probe has achieved a milestone in exploration: On December 10, NASA announced that Voyager 2 has entered interstellar space , six years after Voyager 1 first crossed the threshold. The twins are the only two spacecraft ever to venture so far from home.

To confirm Voyager 2's exit, scientists analyzed data from the spacecraft's Plasma Science Experiment , which measured the heliopause—the boundary between the sun's protective plasma bubble and interstellar space. On November 5, the instrument recorded a steep decline in particles from the sun's plasma. At the same time, Voyager 2 saw more high-energy particles from elsewhere in the galaxy, confirming that the probe had left our cosmic cul-de-sac.

"Working on Voyager makes me feel like an explorer, because everything we're seeing is new," MIT researcher John Richardson, the principal investigator for the plasma experiment, said in a statement . "Even though Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause in 2012, it did so at a different place and a different time, and without the PLS data. So we're still seeing things that no one has seen before."

But even at more than 11 billion miles from the sun, the Voyagers’ story is just beginning. On their current paths, both probes will still be heading outward across the galaxy eons after they escape the gravitational tug of the sun, and perhaps long after our star dies in four or five billion years. Should the spacecraft ever be intercepted by an alien civilization, two golden records bearing the sights and sounds of planet Earth could play the last whispers of a long-dead planet.

Assuming they stay on course, it’s going to be a lonely trip for the Voyagers, because even though our Earthly skies appear to glitter with countless pinpricks of light, space is mostly empty. Distances between the stars are so vast that even when our galaxy smashes into the one next door , not much will happen in the way of stellar collisions.

Still, according to astronomers’ predictions, their cosmic treks will bring the Voyagers close to several starry milestones and a dust cloud or three over the next hundred thousand or so years. Here are some of the known cosmic landmarks the Voyagers could meet in their relatively near futures.


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Launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on August 20, 1977, the dairy cow-size Voyager 2 began its odyssey with a grand tour of the outer solar system, making vital discoveries at Jupiter and Saturn and returning some of the best views yet of Uranus and Neptune.

The probe is now dipping below the plane of the solar system at roughly 34,500 miles an hour and heading celestially south, toward the constellation Sagittarius. On November 5, 2018, it crossed the heliopause, exiting the sun’s protective plasma bubble.

Voyager 2 may be freshly interstellar, but it won’t be anywhere near another star until 40,000 years from now, when it will pass within 1.7 light-years of the small red dwarf star Ross 248. At that point, Ross 248 will be the closest star to our sun, briefly eclipsing the Alpha Centauri system’s claim to fame as its path through the galaxy brings it just 3.02 light-years away.

About 61,000 years from now, Voyager 2 will pass beyond the Oort Cloud—a large, diffuse swarm of icy objects that is thought to extend as far as 200,000 times farther from the sun than Earth, says Wesleyan University’s Seth Redfield .

Voyager 2 may be freshly interstellar, but it won’t be anywhere near another star until 40,000 years from now.

Most scientists think the Oort cloud is the source of comets that take thousands of years to complete one orbit around the sun. It could also be the true boundary of the solar system, if you consider that to be the point where the sun’s gravitational influence drops off.

“The outer edge of the Oort Cloud is approximately where that is,” says Redfield, who has used the Hubble Space Telescope to study the Voyagers’ paths in detail for the next hundred thousand years, and more crudely for the next several million.

Next, in the year 298,000 Voyager 2 will swing within about four light-years of Sirius, the brightest star in Earth’s sky. It’ll then brush by two stars, delta Pav and GJ 754, about a hundred thousand years later.

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Voyager 1 followed its twin into the sky on September 5, 1977. It rendezvoused with Jupiter and Saturn in 1979 and 1980, returning some spectacular views of volcanoes erupting on the Jovian moon Io, then continued outward.

On February 14, 1990, it swiveled to capture the solar system retreating from its view, including a series of images that revealed our pale blue planet looking like “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” according to Carl Sagan.

Now traveling more than 35,000 miles an hour in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus, Voyager 1 is the fastest human-made object in space. In 2013, it became the first spacecraft to leave the heliosphere and cross into interstellar space.

In the year 40,272, the spacecraft will sail within 1.7 light-years of the star Gliese 445 in the constellation Camelopardalis.

In 56,000 years, Voyager 1 will exit the Oort cloud, then brush by the stars GJ 686 and GJ 678 in 570,000 years.

Wandering Wonders

Beyond that, both spacecraft will continue on their journeys outward, passing through scattered dust clouds on their way through the local bubble, a cavern of relatively empty space blown by tempestuous dying stars. They’ll exit this bubble in 5.7 and 6.3 million years, respectively.

From there, things get murky. The peculiar motions of stars and dust clouds orbiting the galactic center aren’t well known yet, and the spacecraft could be slowed by sailing through dust clouds. Plus, gravitational encounters with things like wandering, starless planets could bounce the probes around like billiard balls.

“There may be a whole population of rogue planets out in interstellar space,” Redfield says. “A mildly close encounter with one of those could change the itinerary of the Voyagers.”

Ultimately, like the stars in the Milky Way, the Voyagers will march to the galaxy’s tune and orbit its core for the rest of their lives.

“All the stars in the solar neighborhood are in an orbit around the center of the Milky Way, with orbital periods of 225 to 250 million years,” says Voyager project scientist Ed Stone . “The Voyagers will also be in such independent orbits, completing an orbit every 225 million years for billions of years until a collision with another galaxy disrupts this orderly flow.”

That might occur in four billion years, when the neighboring Andromeda galaxy smashes into the Milky Way and rearranges our skies in spectacular ways.

How the Voyagers’ ultimate demise occurs—whether it’s death by a thousand micrometeorite impacts, or one large improbable collision—remains a mystery. It’s even possible the Voyagers will outlive the solar system, surviving long after the sun’s death sculpts our neighborhood into a dramatically different place.

“The universe tends to do a great job of preserving its occupants,” Redfield says. After all, “the objects in our solar system, even small objects, have been around for 4.5 billion years.”

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March 14, 2024

10 min read

Voyager 1’s Immortal Interstellar Requiem

NASA is reaching across more than 15 billion miles to rescue its malfunctioning Voyager 1 probe—but this hallowed interstellar mission can’t live forever

By Nadia Drake

Voyager spacecraft leaving Solar System. The spacecraft is in silhouette with the light from the distant sun shining through

An artist's concept of NASA's Voyager 1, the space agency's venerable and farthest-flung interplanetary probe.

Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library

In the fall of last year, one of NASA’s most venerable spacecraft started beaming home nonsense. Its usual string of 1’s and 0’s—binary code that collectively told of its journey into the unknown—became suddenly unintelligible.

Some 15 billion miles from Earth, beyond the protective bubble blown by the sun and in interstellar space, Voyager 1 was in trouble.

“We’d gone from having a conversation with Voyager, with the 1’s and 0’s containing science data, to just a dial tone,” says Linda Spilker , Voyager project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

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Spilker joined JPL in 1977, the same year that NASA launched Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2 , on what, in a way, was an endless odyssey: from Earth, to the outer solar system and ultimately to interstellar infinity . Today there are several billion people on Earth who have never taken a breath without the Voyagers in our sky, people who, like me, have only ever existed in a cosmos shared with these talkative twin spacecraft. But like people, spacecraft get old. They break down .

And all good things—and even great ones—must come to an end. After days, and weeks and then months of nothing but indecipherable binary babbling, Voyager 1’s earthbound stewards had to reckon with the idea that maybe, after more than 46 years, its time had at last run out.

The Voyager 1 team at JPL had traced the problem to the spacecraft’s Flight Data System, an onboard computer that parses and parcels engineering and science measurements for subsequent radio transmittal to Earth. One possibility was that a high-energy cosmic particle had struck Voyager 1 and caused a bit flip within the system’s memory — something that has happened more frequently as the craft navigates the hostile wilds of interstellar space. Normally, the team would simply ask the spacecraft for a memory readout, allowing its members to find and reset the errant bit.

“We’ve recovered from bit flips before. The problem this time is we don’t know where the bit flip is because we can’t see what the memory is,” says Suzanne Dodd , Voyager project manager at JPL, who, like Spilker, began her long career with work on the probes. “It’s the most serious issue we’ve had since I’ve been the project manager, and it’s scary because you lose communication with the spacecraft.”

Yesterday, the team announced a significant step in breaking through to Voyager 1. After months of stress and unsuccessful answers they have managed to decode at least a portion of the spacecraft’s gobbledygook, allowing them to (maybe) find a way to see what it has been trying to say.

“It’s an excellent development on Voyager,” says Joe Westlake , director of NASA’s heliophysics division, which oversees the mission.

In the time it will take you to read this story, Voyager 1 will have traversed approximately 10,000 miles of mostly empty space ; in the weeks it took me to report it, the probe traveled some 26 million miles. And since its communication first became garbled last November, the spacecraft has sailed another 10 light-minutes away from home. Voyager 1 and its twin are slipping away from us as surely as the passage of time itself. Sooner or later, these hallowed space-age icons will fall silent, becoming no more than distant memories.

And even among the space community, which of course loves all of its robotic explorers equally, the Voyagers are special. “They are incredibly important and much beloved spacecraft,” says Nicola Fox , NASA’s associate administrator for science. “Voyager 1 is a national treasure, along with Voyager 2 .”

As envisioned, the Voyager mission would exploit a once-in-175-year alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune to slingshot through the solar system’s sparsely charted hinterlands. Legend has it that NASA’s administrator sold the project to President Richard Nixon by noting that the last time the planets were so favorably arranged, Thomas Jefferson was living in the White House. Outfitted with nuclear power sources, the Voyagers were built to last—in utter defiance of the adage that what must go up, must come down. Neither was ever intended to make planetfall again; instead they were bound for the stars. And now, nearly a half-century later, the pair have become the longest-lived and farthest-flung probes ever dispatched by humankind. (Voyager 1 is the front-runner, with its sibling trailing close behind.)

Spilker was straight out of college when she started working on the Voyagers, eager to see the outer solar system through their robotic eyes as they surfed the rare celestial alignment. “I had a telescope in third grade that I used to look at Jupiter and Saturn,” she says. “I wanted to get up really close and get a look at what these planets look like.”

Between 1979 and 1981, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 zipped by the gas giants , returning stunning images of banded Jupiter and buttery Saturn and their bewildering collection of moons. Voyager 2 went on to scrutinize the ice giants: Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989. These were the first and only times anyone had seen each of these bluish ringed worlds up close.

“They were small little pinpoints of light, and now you’re flying close,” Spilker says. “And you see the cliffs of Miranda”—a bizarre Uranian moon—“and Triton, with active geysers going off.” (Nobody had expected to see an active icy world in orbit around Neptune, and even now Voyager’s 35-year-old image is still the best we have of that strange little moon.)

When the Voyagers left the realm of the known planets, each followed a different path into darkness: Voyager 1 arced up and out of the plane of the solar system, and Voyager 2 looped downward. Spilker also followed her own path: she went to graduate school and earned her doctorate in planetary science using Voyager data—not knowing that several decades later, after leading NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn, she’d again be part of the mission that started it all.

“The chance came to go back to Voyager,” she says. “And I said, ‘Of course. I’d love to go back.’”

In the interim, as the Voyagers sailed farther from their Earthly harbor, teams shut down many of the onboard instruments, including the cameras. But the pair kept studying the space that they alone were visiting. Their main job was now to characterize the heliosphere—the solar-system-encompassing, cosmic-ray-blocking bubble formed by our sun’s wind and magnetic field. They would document the alien mix of particles and fields that pervade near nothingness. And maybe, if they got lucky, the twins would each escape the protective solar caul entirely to be reborn as true interstellar wanderers.

In 2012 Voyager 1 transcended this boundary , known as the heliopause, where the sun’s influence wanes. Before that scientists could only guess at what lay beyond this barrier and could only model how it shielded Earth from the harshness of the void. Now Voyager 1 could tell us directly about the stuff between the stars. Voyager 2 followed in 2018 , and Fox—then the new chief of NASA’s heliophysics division—was in the midst of the action.

“You’re looking at the cosmic rays going up and the solar wind going down, and it was one of those ‘oh, my god, this is so exciting’ moments,” Fox recalls. “I think of the Voyagers as one mission,” she says. “We’re putting all the data together, but they’re the ones that are out there. They’re the brave spacecraft that have left the protective bubble of the heliosphere and are out exploring interstellar space. It’s hard not to be excited by them.”

This wasn’t the first time Voyager 1 had started speaking an unintelligible language. In 2022, when the probe suffered an earlier bout of garbled telemetry, JPL engineer Bob Rasmussen was shaken out of retirement. The lab wanted to know if Rasmussen, who’d joined the spacecraft’s systems engineering team in 1975, was willing to have a think about the situation.

“I’d been happily retired for a bit more than a year at that point, with plenty else to keep me busy,” Rasmussen says. “But I like solving puzzles, and this was a tough one that I just couldn’t pass up. Cracking it took a few months, but the puzzle stream hasn’t slowed since then.”

Afterward, he stayed on-call. So last November, when Voyager 1 again started transmitting nonsense, Rasmussen was ready for more problem-solving. He was joined by a hand-picked team of specialists, and together they dove into the details for getting the ailing spacecraft back in action.

The problems were at least three layers deep. First, it takes a long time to communicate with Voyager 1. Traveling at the speed of light, the radio signals used to command the spacecraft take 22.5 hours to travel 15 billion miles—and 22.5 hours to come back. Second, the Voyagers are not exactly modern technology.

“Most things don’t last 46 years. Your clock radio and toaster aren’t going to last 46 years,” says Dodd, who started on the Voyager project straight out of school, then worked on other missions and is now back on this one.

Plus, many of the people who built and developed the spacecraft in the 1970s aren’t around to explain the rationale behind the designs.

And third, unluckily enough, whatever had mangled the spacecraft had managed to take out Voyager 1’s ability to send meaningful communications. The team was in the dark, trying to find the invisible source of an error. (Imagine trying to revive a stalled desktop computer with a frozen screen: you can’t see your cursor, and your clicks risk causing more problems—except in this case each input carries a multiday lag and could damage a precious, misbehaving artifact that is more than 15 billion miles away.) Perhaps the most vexing part was the team’s knowledge that Voyager 1 was otherwise intact and functioning as it should be.

“It’s still doing what it’s supposed to be doing,” Westlake says. “It just can’t quite figure out how to send the correct message home.”

Rasmussen and his colleagues set out to understand the spacecraft in as much detail as possible. That meant poring over the original design schematics, now yellowed and pinned to various walls—an effort that resembled “a bit of an archaeology dig,” Dodd says—and studying how past teams had addressed anomalies. That was tricky, Dodd says, because even though the team members could figure out how engineers solved a problem, they couldn’t necessarily discern the rationale behind various solutions. They’d send commands to Voyager 1 about once a week—usually on Fridays—and by Sunday, they’d hear back from the spacecraft.

“There’s suspense after each cautious move, hope with each piece that falls into place, disappointment if our hunches are wrong,” Rasmussen says.

Progress was slow. And as time crept on, the team grew more concerned. But no one was giving up, at any level of leadership.

“I will rely on the Voyager team to say, ‘Hey, Nicky, we’ve done everything , ’” Fox says. “We wouldn’t make any decisions until we knew that every single thing had been tried and tried again because we really do want to get Voyager 1 back talking to us.”

And then, in early March, something changed. In response to a command, instead of beaming back absolute gibberish, the spacecraft sent a string of numbers that looked more familiar. It proved to be a Rosetta stone moment. Soon an unnamed engineer at NASA’s Deep Space Network—the globe-girdling array of radio dishes that relays information from Earth to spacecraft—had learned how to speak Voyager 1’s jumbled language.

After translating that vaguely familiar portion of the spacecraft’s transmission, the team could see that it contained a readout of the flight data system’s memory. Now they face new questions: Can they find and correct the source of the mutated code? Can they learn whether the spacecraft is sending useful science data? Can they restore Voyager 1’s lexicon to its original state—or will they need to continue speaking in the probe’s new postheliopause patois? “The hope is that we’ll get good science data back,” Westlake says. “Thinking about something that’s been a constant throughout my entire career going away is really tough to think about.”

But either by glitch or time’s slow decay of radioactive power sources, the Voyagers will, of course, eventually fade away. Each year they lose four watts of power, and they grow ever colder. “Whether it’s this particular anomaly that gets us or one downstream, or the spacecraft gets old enough and cold enough —one day you’ll go to look for it and it has just stopped working,” Spilker says.

Like silent ambassadors or wordless emissaries, the Voyagers will keep sailing outward, still carrying us with them into the stars—“sort of like a message a bottle,” Spilker says.

Besides their science payloads, a fraction of each spacecraft’s mass was devoted to casting a cosmic message into the interstellar ocean from a lonely island called Earth. Mounted to each probe is a golden record etched with grooves encoding a selection of sights and sounds from our small corner of space and time. An accompanying stylus is positioned to play the record from the beginning, alongside a pictographic and arithmetic instruction manual.

The records are gold because gold is stable for eons, and they’re records because that was the best way to store a lot of information in the 1970s. Should they ever be recovered and decoded, the message will tell the stories of we humans—at least as envisioned (and in some cases performed) by a small group of folks that included my parents ( the late astrophysicist Frank Drake and his surviving spouse Amahl Shakhashiri Drake), astronomer Carl Sagan, documentary producer Ann Druyan and science writer Timothy Ferris. Those stories are imperfect. They’re filled with lopsided optimism and scrubbed of references to war, famine, poverty and most any other Earthly failing—a deliberate decision to hide the defects of our broken world. I know this because my dad, the record’s technical director and a pioneer in the scientific quest to find cosmic civilizations, told me about the hard choices he’d made in selecting the photographs. And I know it because my mom, who recorded the message’s Arabic greeting (“Greetings to our friends in the stars. We wish that we will meet you someday”), helped, too.

For me, as the Voyagers travel through space , they’re not only helping us understand the cosmic context in which we exist; they’re also bearing a memento of my parents into the stars. These spacecraft—and their gleaming paean to Earth—will survive for billions of years. Long after our world, our sun and everything we hold dear becomes unrecognizable, the Voyagers will remain, resolutely speeding ever farther from a home that no longer exists and containing artifacts of a civilization that once was.

That’s why, over nearly half a century, the Voyagers and their interstellar tidings have come to be bigger than the already audacious mission they were designed to accomplish. Their reach is broader. And their inevitable silence will be profound.

“The thought that they’re out there on their own and you can no longer communicate with them—it’s traumatic,” Fox says. “It’s sad. It’s really sad.”

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Some hope —

Finally, engineers have a clue that could help them save voyager 1, a new signal from humanity's most distant spacecraft could be the key to restoring it..

Stephen Clark - Mar 15, 2024 11:23 pm UTC

Artist's illustration of the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

It's been four months since NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft sent an intelligible signal back to Earth, and the problem has puzzled engineers tasked with supervising the probe exploring interstellar space.

But there's a renewed optimism among the Voyager ground team based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. On March 1, engineers sent a command up to Voyager 1—more than 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) away from Earth—to "gently prompt" one of the spacecraft's computers to try different sequences in its software package. This was the latest step in NASA's long-distance troubleshooting to try to isolate the cause of the problem preventing Voyager 1 from transmitting coherent telemetry data.

Cracking the case

Officials suspect a piece of corrupted memory inside the Flight Data Subsystem (FDS), one of three main computers on the spacecraft, is the most likely culprit for the interruption in normal communication. Because Voyager 1 is so far away, it takes about 45 hours for engineers on the ground to know how the spacecraft reacted to their commands—the one-way light travel time is about 22.5 hours.

The FDS collects science and engineering data from the spacecraft's sensors, then combines the information into a single data package, which goes through a separate component called the Telemetry Modulation Unit to beam it back to Earth through Voyager's high-gain antenna.

Engineers are almost entirely certain the problem is in the FDS computer. The communications systems onboard Voyager 1 appear to be functioning normally, and the spacecraft is sending a steady radio tone back to Earth, but there's no usable data contained in the signal. This means engineers know Voyager 1 is alive, but they have no insight into what part of the FDS memory is causing the problem.

But Voyager 1 responded to the March 1 troubleshooting command with something different from what engineers have seen since this issue first appeared on November 14.

"The new signal was still not in the format used by Voyager 1 when the FDS is working properly, so the team wasn’t initially sure what to make of it," NASA said in an update Wednesday. "But an engineer with the agency’s Deep Space Network, which operates the radio antennas that communicate with both Voyagers and other spacecraft traveling to the Moon and beyond, was able to decode the new signal and found that it contains a readout of the entire FDS memory."

Now, engineers are meticulously comparing each bit of code from the FDS memory readout to the memory readout Voyager 1 sent back to Earth before the issue arose in November. This, they hope, will allow them to find the root of the problem. But it will probably take weeks or months for the Voyager team to take the next step. They don't want to cause more harm.

"Using that information to devise a potential solution and attempt to put it into action will take time," NASA said.

This is perhaps the most serious ailment the spacecraft has encountered since its launch in 1977. Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter and Saturn before getting a kick from Saturn's gravity to speed into the outer solar system. In 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space when it crossed the heliopause, where the solar wind, the stream of particles emanating from the Sun, push against a so-called galactic wind, the particles that populate the void between the stars.

Engineers have kept Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, alive for more than 46 years , overcoming technical problems that have doomed other space missions. Both probes face waning power from their nuclear batteries, and there are concerns about their thrusters aging and fuel lines becoming clogged, among other things. But each time there is a problem, ground teams have come up with a trick to keep the Voyagers going, often referencing binders of fraying blueprints and engineering documents from the spacecraft's design and construction nearly 50 years ago.

Suzanne Dodd, NASA's project manager for Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, recently told Ars that engineers would need to pull off their "biggest miracle" to restore Voyager 1 to normal operations. Now, Voyager 1's voice from the sky has provided engineers with a clue that could help them realize this miracle.

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Voyager 1, First Craft in Interstellar Space, May Have Gone Dark

The 46-year-old probe, which flew by Jupiter and Saturn in its youth and inspired earthlings with images of the planet as a “Pale Blue Dot,” hasn’t sent usable data from interstellar space in months.

voyager 1 and 2 interstellar space

By Orlando Mayorquin

When Voyager 1 launched in 1977, scientists hoped it could do what it was built to do and take up-close images of Jupiter and Saturn. It did that — and much more.

Voyager 1 discovered active volcanoes, moons and planetary rings, proving along the way that Earth and all of humanity could be squished into a single pixel in a photograph, a “ pale blue dot, ” as the astronomer Carl Sagan called it. It stretched a four-year mission into the present day, embarking on the deepest journey ever into space.

Now, it may have bid its final farewell to that faraway dot.

Voyager 1 , the farthest man-made object in space, hasn’t sent coherent data to Earth since November. NASA has been trying to diagnose what the Voyager mission’s project manager, Suzanne Dodd, called the “most serious issue” the robotic probe has faced since she took the job in 2010.

The spacecraft encountered a glitch in one of its computers that has eliminated its ability to send engineering and science data back to Earth.

The loss of Voyager 1 would cap decades of scientific breakthroughs and signal the beginning of the end for a mission that has given shape to humanity’s most distant ambition and inspired generations to look to the skies.

“Scientifically, it’s a big loss,” Ms. Dodd said. “I think — emotionally — it’s maybe even a bigger loss.”

Voyager 1 is one half of the Voyager mission. It has a twin spacecraft, Voyager 2.

Launched in 1977, they were primarily built for a four-year trip to Jupiter and Saturn , expanding on earlier flybys by the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes.

The Voyager mission capitalized on a rare alignment of the outer planets — once every 175 years — allowing the probes to visit all four.

Using the gravity of each planet, the Voyager spacecraft could swing onto the next, according to NASA .

The mission to Jupiter and Saturn was a success.

The 1980s flybys yielded several new discoveries, including new insights about the so-called great red spot on Jupiter, the rings around Saturn and the many moons of each planet.

Voyager 2 also explored Uranus and Neptune , becoming in 1989 the only spacecraft to explore all four outer planets.

voyager 1 and 2 interstellar space

Voyager 1, meanwhile, had set a course for deep space, using its camera to photograph the planets it was leaving behind along the way. Voyager 2 would later begin its own trek into deep space.

“Anybody who is interested in space is interested in the things Voyager discovered about the outer planets and their moons,” said Kate Howells, the public education specialist at the Planetary Society, an organization co-founded by Dr. Sagan to promote space exploration.

“But I think the pale blue dot was one of those things that was sort of more poetic and touching,” she added.

On Valentine’s Day 1990, Voyager 1, darting 3.7 billion miles away from the sun toward the outer reaches of the solar system, turned around and snapped a photo of Earth that Dr. Sagan and others understood to be a humbling self-portrait of humanity.

“It’s known the world over, and it does connect humanity to the stars,” Ms. Dodd said of the mission.

She added: “I’ve had many, many many people come up to me and say: ‘Wow, I love Voyager. It’s what got me excited about space. It’s what got me thinking about our place here on Earth and what that means.’”

Ms. Howells, 35, counts herself among those people.

About 10 years ago, to celebrate the beginning of her space career, Ms. Howells spent her first paycheck from the Planetary Society to get a Voyager tattoo.

Though spacecraft “all kind of look the same,” she said, more people recognize the tattoo than she anticipated.

“I think that speaks to how famous Voyager is,” she said.

The Voyagers made their mark on popular culture , inspiring a highly intelligent “Voyager 6” in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and references on “The X Files” and “The West Wing.”

Even as more advanced probes were launched from Earth, Voyager 1 continued to reliably enrich our understanding of space.

In 2012, it became the first man-made object to exit the heliosphere, the space around the solar system directly influenced by the sun. There is a technical debate among scientists around whether Voyager 1 has actually left the solar system, but, nonetheless, it became interstellar — traversing the space between stars.

That charted a new path for heliophysics, which looks at how the sun influences the space around it. In 2018, Voyager 2 followed its twin between the stars.

Before Voyager 1, scientific data on the sun’s gases and material came only from within the heliosphere’s confines, according to Dr. Jamie Rankin, Voyager’s deputy project scientist.

“And so now we can for the first time kind of connect the inside-out view from the outside-in,” Dr. Rankin said, “That’s a big part of it,” she added. “But the other half is simply that a lot of this material can’t be measured any other way than sending a spacecraft out there.”

Voyager 1 and 2 are the only such spacecraft. Before it went offline, Voyager 1 had been studying an anomalous disturbance in the magnetic field and plasma particles in interstellar space.

“Nothing else is getting launched to go out there,” Ms. Dodd said. “So that’s why we’re spending the time and being careful about trying to recover this spacecraft — because the science is so valuable.”

But recovery means getting under the hood of an aging spacecraft more than 15 billion miles away, equipped with the technology of yesteryear. It takes 45 hours to exchange information with the craft.

It has been repeated over the years that a smartphone has hundreds of thousands of times Voyager 1’s memory — and that the radio transmitter emits as many watts as a refrigerator lightbulb.

“There was one analogy given that is it’s like trying to figure out where your cursor is on your laptop screen when your laptop screen doesn’t work,” Ms. Dodd said.

Her team is still holding out hope, she said, especially as the tantalizing 50th launch anniversary in 2027 approaches. Voyager 1 has survived glitches before, though none as serious.

Voyager 2 is still operational, but aging. It has faced its own technical difficulties too.

NASA had already estimated that the nuclear-powered generators of both spacecrafts would likely die around 2025.

Even if the Voyager interstellar mission is near its end, the voyage still has far to go.

Voyager 1 and its twin, each 40,000 years away from the next closest star, will arguably remain on an indefinite mission.

“If Voyager should sometime in its distant future encounter beings from some other civilization in space, it bears a message,” Dr. Sagan said in a 1980 interview .

Each spacecraft carries a gold-plated phonograph record loaded with an array of sound recordings and images representing humanity’s richness, its diverse cultures and life on Earth.

“A gift across the cosmic ocean from one island of civilization to another,” Dr. Sagan said.

Orlando Mayorquin is a general assignment and breaking news reporter based in New York. More about Orlando Mayorquin

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The Voyager spacecraft will probably last a billion years, says a scientist on the mission for nearly 5 decades

  • Alan Cummings has worked on the Voyager mission for over 50 years.
  • Since their launch, the two Voyager spacecraft have made breakthrough discoveries that keep Cummings engaged.
  • Cummings thinks they will continue traveling for a billion years.

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The twin Voyager spacecraft launched almost five decades ago, and there's no reason they shouldn't keep going for a billion years, one of its scientists, Alan Cummings told Business Insider.

Cummings started working on the Voyager mission when he was a graduate student at Caltech in 1973, about four years before the two spacecraft launched.

Now a senior research scientist at Caltech, Cummings has seen the program dwindle from over 300 people to fewer than a dozen.

Voyagers 1 and 2 have traveled over 10 billion miles into space, further than any human-made object. Cummings said being a part of this historic mission for so many decades has been the backbone of his career.

"The Hubble Telescope is a great mission," he said. " JWST is a great mission, but I think Voyager's in that kind of category."

Voyagers' endurance

The Voyager mission has been gathering groundbreaking data and photos since the beginning.

The first time Cummings saw Jupiter's moon Io in 1979, for example, he thought it was a joke. "It looked like a poorly made pizza," he said.

Its colorful, volcano-covered surface looked so different from Earth's gray, pockmarked moon . "This can't be real," he said, "and it was real."

The Voyagers offered us a new perspective on our outer solar system, unlike anything we could have imagined.

They discovered Saturn wasn't the only planet with rings — Jupiter has them too. They revealed new moons around Jupiter and Saturn.

In total, the two spacecraft snapped 67,000 images of our solar system, the final of which was the "pale blue dot" photo made famous by Carl Sagan who said:

"To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world."

"It rewrote the textbooks," Cummings said of the mission.

Both Voyagers were initially planned as five-year missions, but Cummings said, from the beginning, he expected the spacecraft to last at least 30 to 40 years.

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"A remarkable engineering team has kept this thing going," Cummings said.

Now, as the two spacecraft approach their 50th anniversaries, they're running low on fuel.

Engineers have had to shut down different instruments to keep them going and the data coming in.

Cummings said once the Voyagers lose power and communication, they'll continue traveling. "I think it's going to go for a billion years," he said. "There's nothing to stop it."

Joining Voyager

If it weren't for an unfortunate accident, Cummings may never have joined the Voyager mission.

Before Voyager, Cummings was part of an experiment to measure cosmic rays using a balloon.

For several summers, he had released the balloon from northern Manitoba, Canada.

But during its final flight, the balloon didn't descend as expected and ended up over Russia, instead.

By the time Cummings got to Russia, the instrument was destroyed.

"It was very fortunate for me," he said, because he was able to then join the Voyager mission.

He put his cosmic ray experience to use, working on telescopes for the mission's experiments.

"I have my little initials scratched on one of those" telescopes he said, "so I guess I'm going to be immortal."

Interstellar space

Cummings has worked on other projects over the decades, but Voyagers' continual transmission of new data has kept him excited and involved.

"There's always some new phenomenon that you see," he said.

In fact, Voyager's data has become increasingly more interesting to Cummings in recent years because the two spacecraft are now in interstellar space , the region of space beyond our sun's influence.

After passing by the four giant planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus, many of the instruments were still in working order. So, the spacecraft transitioned to an interstellar mission.

In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first human-made spacecraft to enter interstellar space and Voyager 2 followed six years later.

"That is really what I was most interested in anyway," Cummings said, since cosmic rays are his field of expertise and in interstellar space, those rays aren't disrupted by the sun, Earth, and other obstructions in our solar system.

Voyager is "making its most interesting measurements in some ways right now," he said.

Currently, Voyager 1 is having issues with one of its onboard computers that could compromise the mission.

Cummings hopes the Voyagers can hang on a little longer, especially since interstellar space is a long way off for any other spacecraft.

Watch: NASA released this 5-year time-lapse of Mars from its Curiosity rover — and the footage looks amazing

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Ailing voyager 1 spacecraft offers glimmer of hope to nasa.

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A NASA image of one of the Voyager space probes. Voyager 1 and its identical sister craft Voyager 2 ... [+] were launched in 1977 to study the outer Solar System and eventually interstellar space. (Photo by NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

NASA’s pioneering Voyager 1 spacecraft is adventuring beyond our solar system, but all is not well with the elderly machine. Voyager 1 has essentially been speaking gibberish since November and NASA has been involved in a long-distance troubleshooting operation ever since. A new development is giving scientists and engineers some reason for hope.

Voyager 1 launched in 1977 on a mission to study the outer solar system. It just kept on going and eventually crossed into interstellar space in 2012. It’s had a remarkable life, but NASA intends to maintain contact with the probe and continue to gather data from a part of the universe never before visited by an Earth spacecraft. The recent data issue put a pause on Voyager 1’s science work.

The culprit seems to be the flight data subsystem, which gathers data from the spacecraft’s science instruments and also monitors the probe’s health. The FDS is supposed to talk to a telemetry modulation unit that sends the data back to Earth. The data has been unintelligible and unusable, but on March 3, something changed. “The Voyager mission team saw activity from one section of the FDS that differed from the rest of the computer’s unreadable data stream,” NASA said in an update on March 13.

The new signal was confusing, but at least it was different. An engineer working with NASA’s Deep Space Network—the communications and tracking network that talks to Voyager 1—decoded the signal and discovered a readout of the FDS memory. “The FDS memory includes its code, or instructions for what to do, as well as variables, or values used in the code that can change based on commands or the spacecraft’s status,” said NASA. “It also contains science or engineering data for downlink.”

The Voyager 1 team is now engaged in a sleuthing exercise that will compare the readout with previous information from before the glitch. This might help NASA finally diagnose the problem and come up with a fix. The new signal wasn’t just random. NASA sent a command known as a “poke” to the spacecraft on March 1 to prompt the FDS to flex its software and find a workaround to whatever is causing the problem.

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It’s complicated enough to fix a spacecraft when it’s near Earth, but Voyager 1 is 15 billion miles away. A radio signal must travel 22.5 hours to reach the probe and then it takes another 22.5 hours to receive a response. That’s like troubleshooting while swimming in molasses. NASA is also dealing with decades-old hardware, software and documentation. “The team is analyzing the readout,” said NASA. “Using that information to devise a potential solution and attempt to put it into action will take time.”

Voyager 1 and its twin Voyager 2 launched when disco reigned and Star Wars was just getting started. The spacecraft were built to last five years, but have now been in operation for over 46 years. NASA has turned off some of Voyager 1’s science instruments over time, but the spacecraft still has life left in it if the team can work through the data issue. It’s too soon to count the space pioneer out.

Amanda Kooser

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NASA finds clue while solving Voyager 1's communication breakdown case

An outlier signal has brought ground control closer to decoding the troubling problem.

An illustration shows Voyager 1 in interstellar space

NASA engineers are a step closer to solving the communication problem that left the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which presently sits outside the solar system, unable to send usable data back to Earth.

In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to leave the solar system and enter interstellar space . For 11 years following this achievement, the spacecraft dutifully sent data to ground control. This was data that detailed how space works beyond the influence of the sun. In Nov. 2023, however, Voyager 1's communications with ground operators stopped making sense. 

To be clear, however, Voyager 2 , which followed its spacecraft sibling out of the solar system in 2018, is still operational and communicating with Earth.

"Effectively, the call between the spacecraft and the Earth was still connected, but Voyager's 'voice' was replaced with a monotonous dial tone," Voyager 1's engineering team previously told .

The source of the issue appears to be one of Voyager 1's three onboard computers: The flight data subsystem (FDS). This computer, NASA says , is responsible for packaging science and engineering data before it's sent to Earth by the spacecraft's telemetry modulation unit.

Related: NASA's Voyager 1 glitch has scientists sad yet hopeful: 'Voyager 2 is still going strong'

The positive step towards solving communications issues between ground control and Voyager 1 came on March 3 when the Voyager mission team detected activity from one section of the FDS that was different from the rest of the computer’s garbled data stream.

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Voyager 1's messaging to Earth comes in the form of 1s and 0s, a computer language called binary code — but since the end of last year, this code has carried no meaning. Even the newly detected signal is still not in the correct format Voyager 1 should be using when FDS is functioning as designed, meaning the operating team was initially not quite sure what to make of it.

This changed, however, when an engineer at NASA's Deep Space Network , which is tasked with operating radio antennas that communicate with Voyager 1 and its interstellar sibling Voyager 2, as well as other NASA spacecraft closer to home, got a look at the code. The unnamed engineer was able to decode the outlier signal, discovering that it contained a readout of the FDS' entire memory.

a groovy poster shows a space probe with large white satellite dish mounted on a metal frame body with various length instruments jut out. surrounding colors are gold and orange, with a dark hombre background.

Encoded with the FDS memory are performance instructions and code values that can change either if the spacecraft's status changes or if commanded to do so. Science and engineering data to be sent back to Earth are also locked up in the memory. 

The team will now compare this new signal, which occurred because of a prompt, or "poke," from mission control, to data that was sent back to Earth just before Voyager 1 started spouting binary nonsense. Finding discrepancies between regular Voyager 1 data and this poke-prompted signal will help the crew hunt for the source of the issue. The idea of the poke was to prompt FDS to try using different sequences in its software package and determine if the communication issue could be resolved by navigating around a corrupted or damaged section.

—  Voyager 2: An iconic spacecraft that's still exploring 45 years on

—  NASA's interstellar Voyager probes get software updates beamed from 12 billion miles away

—  NASA Voyager 2 spacecraft extends its interstellar science mission for 3 more years

Voyager 1 is currently around 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) from Earth, meaning that solving communication issues can be a painstaking process. It takes 22.5 hours to receive a radio signal from Voyager 1, then another 22.5 hours to receive a response via the Deep Space Network's antennas.

That means the results of NASA's poke were received on March 3, and on March 7 engineers started working to decode this signal. Three days later they determined the signal contains an FDS memory readout.

NASA scientists and engineers will continue to analyze this readout to restore communication with the pioneering space mission that extended humanity's reach beyond the solar system.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: [email protected].

Robert Lea

Robert Lea is a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.

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NASA gave Voyager 1 a 'poke' amid communication woes. Here's why the response was encouraging.

The voyager 1's mission was extended to 2025. but a communication breakdown in november put it in peril..

voyager 1 and 2 interstellar space

The mission of one of NASA's twin Voyager space probes has been in peril for months as the space agency has been unable to receive usable data from the craft launched 46 years ago to explore the far reaches of the cosmos.

But a recent "poke" sent to Voyager 1 as it travels 15.1 billion miles away from Earth has given engineers a reason for optimism when they received a response earlier in March.

Mission control prodded Voyager 1 and received a new signal March 3 that they began working furiously to decode days later. By March 10, the team determined that what they had was a memory readout, which may contain valuable data to allow them to restore regular communications with Voyager 1, NASA said .

The 46-year-old pioneering probe has continually defied expectations for its lifespan as it ventures further into uncharted territory of the cosmos . NASA had hoped Voyager 1's extended mission would allow the spacecraft to beam back valuable data through 2025 .

But a communication breakdown in November put that goal in peril.

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Unexpected issue caused Voyager 1 to send home gibberish

Voyager 1 has never ceased sending a steady radio signal to ground control operators on Earth, but that signal has not carried any usable data since November, NASA said.

Instead, the probe's telemetry modulation unit began sending a nonsensical repeating patterns of code.

The space agency traced the source of the communication breakdown to one of the spacecraft’s three onboard computers, known as the flight data subsystem, which is responsible for packaging the science and engineering data before it’s beamed to Earth.

In order to figure out what was going on, mission control sent a "poke" March 1 commanding Voyager 1's flight data subsystem to run different sequences in case a software corruption was causing the issue. Within two days, NASA got the response for which it hoped.

On March 3, the Voyager mission team noticed that activity from one section of the flight data subsystem, was different from the rest of the computer's unreadable data stream. Because it still wasn't in the format used by Voyager 1 when it's properly sending data, the team was confused.

The array of giant radio network antennas known as the  Deep Space Network that communicates with both Voyager probes decoded the signal and found that it contained a readout of the subsystem's entire memory – its coding, as well as the science and engineering data its collected. The discovered readout provided an opportunity for the team to analyze it for discrepancies in the code that could have caused the ongoing issue.

"Using that information to devise a potential solution and attempt to put it into action will take time," NASA said.

What is the mission of NASA Voyager probes?

The  twin Voyager probes  were launched on separate dates in 1977 from Cape Canaveral, Florida and have since traveled billions of miles away from Earth.

In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to reach interstellar space, followed in 2018 by Voyager 2,  according to NA S A .

The probes' main mission is to explore the far reaches of our solar system ‒ and beyond. To that end, the spacecrafts have investigated all the giant planets of our outer solar system ‒ Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune ‒ as well as the planets' magnetic fields and a combined 48 of their moons,  NASA says .

But both Voyager 1 and 2 also carry a  greeting  to any form of life they may encounter called the Golden Record.

Famed American astronomer Carl Sagan chaired the committee tasked with selecting the contents of the message, contained on a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk. The phonograph records contain aspects that encapsulate life on Earth, such as  samples of music  from different cultures and eras, natural and man-made  sounds from Earth , and electronic information encoded in analog form that an advanced civilization could convert into  photographs .

Voyager 2 also recently lost contact with NASA

In July, Voyager 2 also experienced a communication breakdown with mission control when its antenna was inadvertently pointed into the wrong direction .

Contact was lost July 21 with Voyager 2 after mission control transmitted routine commands that inadvertently triggered a 2-degree change in the craft's antenna orientation and disrupted the deep-space probe's ability to receive commands or transmit data back to Earth.

Fortunately, contact was restored in August when NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory sent an interstellar "shout" that successfully commanded the craft, which is now 12.6 billion miles away, to reorient itself.

Eric Lagatta covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach him at [email protected]


10 Things: Going Interstellar

Illustration of a galaxy with a bright center and curved spiral arms.

Humanity’s great leap into interstellar space – the space between the stars – is underway. NASA's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes are both in interstellar space.

For the moment, sending humans to the edge of interstellar space, let alone across the cosmic void to other stars, remains firmly in the realm of science fiction. But scientists and engineers are developing skills and technologies that might help us get there one day.

Here are 10 things we’ve learned about going interstellar.

1. The Space Between

Interstellar space is often called the space between the stars, but more specifically, it’s the region between our Sun’s heliosphere and the astrospheres of other stars.

Our heliosphere is a vast bubble of plasma – a gas of charged particles – that spews out of the Sun. This outflow is known as the solar wind. The bubble surrounds the Sun and stretches beyond the planets. Both Voyager spacecraft had to travel more than 11 billion miles (17 billion kilometers) from the Sun in order to cross the edge of the heliosphere. This bubble is moving through interstellar space as the Sun orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy. As our heliosphere plows through space, it creates a bow wave, like the wave formed by the bow of a ship.

Retro disco poster celebrating Voyager

2. Are we there yet? No. Seriously, this trip is going to take a while.

Since warp drive is still just a fantasy, getting to interstellar space takes a really long time at present. Voyager 1 , the first spacecraft to make it, was about 122 Astronomical Units (Earth is one Astronomical Unit, or AU, from the Sun) – that’s about 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) from the Sun – when it exited the heliosphere and entered interstellar space. The spacecraft launched from Florida in 1977 and entered interstellar space in 2012. That’s a 35-year trip. Of course, Voyager 1 didn’t make a beeline for interstellar space – it took the scenic route and toured Jupiter and Saturn first. Voyager 2 , traveling slower than Voyager 1, also toured Uranus and Neptune, and took 41 years to reach interstellar space.

Planets of our solar system appear as distant points of light in this mosaic.

3. What does it look like out there? Where are my interstellar photos?

Sorry, no Voyager selfies. After Voyager 1 took images in 1990 for the "Solar System Family Portrait” that included the famous “ Pale Blue Dot " photo, the cameras were turned off to save power and computer memory for the interstellar mission to come. Additionally, the camera software was removed, and the computers on the ground that understand the software do not exist anymore. The cameras also have been exposed to extreme cold for many years. So, even if mission managers rebuilt the ground computers, reloaded the camera software, and turned the cameras back on, it's not clear they would work.

If it's any consolation, there's not much for the Voyagers to see now except for the stars, and they wouldn't look much different than they did in 1990.

4. Sounds of silence? Not if you know how to listen.

You shouldn't be able to hear anything in interstellar space, because it’s a near-perfect vacuum: There's essentially no medium for the soundwaves to travel though, like air. But Voyager's instruments are much more sensitive than our ears, and the instruments were able to "listen" to other kinds of waves that travel through the interstellar medium. What they heard was music to scientists' ears.

Don Gurnett, the principal investigator for the Plasma Wave Science instrument on Voyager 1, played an audio recording of plasma wave data at a press conference in September 2013. The sounds, he explained, were solid evidence that Voyager 1 had left the heliosphere and was in interstellar space.

Strictly speaking, the plasma wave instrument doesn’t detect sound. It senses waves in the plasma that are generated by eruptions on the Sun, known as coronal mass ejections. These waves influence the interstellar medium, so Voyager can detect them both inside and outside of the heliosphere. The plasma is so diluted that waves traveling through it would be far too weak for our ears to detect. But, because some of those waves fall into the "audio frequency" range, all Gurnett had to do was amplify the sound to make them audible to human ears.

Small object moving against background of stars.

5. Didn’t we have an interstellar visitor?

An intriguing object zipped through our solar system in late 2017. It was on a steep trajectory that told scientists it wasn’t from around here. They determined it was from interstellar space – the first confirmed object from another solar system to visit our solar system.

Scientists named the object ‘Oumuamua , a Hawaiian word meaning "visitor from afar arriving first.”

So what was it? Because 'Oumuamua was the first of its kind and wasn't observed in great detail at close range, researchers found it difficult to draw conclusions . But whatever it was – it was big, it was moving fast, and it was tumbling through space.

'Oumuamua was estimated to be about half a mile (800 meters) long. Astronomers had never seen a natural object with such extreme proportions in the solar system before. It was last detected traveling away from the Sun at about 196,000 mph or 87.3 kilometers per second – on its way back to interstellar space. After January 2018, 'Oumuamua was no longer visible to telescopes, even in space.

Illustrated view of the wake our solar system makes in space.

6. Boldly going where no spacecraft have gone before.

Only two spacecraft have made it to interstellar space. Voyager 1 was the first, in August 2012. Six years later, its twin, Voyager 2, entered interstellar space on Nov. 5, 2018.

The New Horizons probe that explored Pluto and the Kuiper Belt Object named Arrokoth is also headed toward interstellar space, generally in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius.

NASA's Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 have both stopped functioning, but they also are coasting into interstellar space as ghost ships. Pioneer 10 is heading toward the red star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus. Pioneer 11 is traveling toward the center of the galaxy in the direction of Sagittarius.

Rocket launching into space from Florida.

7. Escape Velocity: What it takes to go interstellar.

Hundreds of spacecraft have been launched beyond Earth, so why are only five spaceships headed out of our solar system? Well, most spacecraft aren’t meant to leave the solar system. They’re designed to fly by, orbit, or land on a planet.

To go to interstellar space, a probe needs to be launched into a specific orbit, and by a rocket powerful enough to give it the velocity to break free of the Sun's gravity.

Even using our biggest rockets, some probes need a boost. The Voyagers took advantage of a rare arrangement of the outer planets which occurs about every 176 years. The probes used gravity assists to swing from one planet to the next without needing large propulsion systems. Three of the flybys increased the velocity of the probes enough to deliver them to the next planet, climbing further out of the grip of the Sun's gravity.

8. Cosmic Overachievers: Still exploring after all these years.

Voyager 1 and 2 were launched 16 days apart in 1977. Voyager 2 was launched first, but Voyager 1 was on a faster trajectory. They are the longest continuously operating spacecraft. Between them, they’ve explored all the gas giant planets in our solar system.

While the probes are now in interstellar space, they haven’t truly left the solar system. The boundary of the solar system is considered to be beyond the Oort Cloud, a collection of small objects still under the influence of the Sun. Most comets that visit the inner solar system come from the Oort Cloud. It could take the probes 300 years to reach the inner edge of that region.

Golden record with a cover that includes details about Earth's location in space.

9. OK, the Voyagers have made it to interstellar space. What now?

Eventually, the Voyagers will pass other stars. Voyager 1 is escaping the solar system at a speed of about 3.5 AU per year, 35 degrees out of the ecliptic plane to the north, in the general direction of the solar apex (the direction of the Sun's motion relative to nearby stars). Voyager 1 will leave the solar system aiming toward the constellation Ophiuchus. In the year 40,272 CE (more than 38,200 years from now), Voyager 1 will come within 1.7 light-years of an obscure star now in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear or Little Dipper) called Gliese 445.

Voyager 2 is escaping the solar system at a speed of about 3.1 AU per year toward the constellations of Sagittarius and Pavo. In about 40,000 years, Voyager 2 will come within about 1.7 light-years of a star called Ross 248, a small star now in the constellation of Andromeda.

After that, the Voyagers are destined to orbit in the Milky Way as silent ambassadors from Earth – perhaps forever. Each spacecraft carries a Golden Record of Earth sounds, pictures, and messages.

10. Beyond the Voyagers: Next steps for exploring interstellar space

There are no current NASA plans to send new spacecraft to interstellar space, but researchers are exploring a variety of ideas and concepts for what might be possible and scientifically valuable. There are, however, two NASA satellites designed to study interstellar space from relatively close to Earth.

The Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) is a small satellite already orbiting Earth. IBEX has special instruments gathering data to create the first map of the boundary of interstellar space.

NASA is preparing to launch the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) in 2025. The spacecraft will be positioned about 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) away from Earth toward the Sun, at what is called the first Lagrange point or L1. It will help researchers better understand the boundary of the heliosphere.

Related Terms

  • The Solar System
  • The Universe
  • Voyager Program

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NASA, California Institute of Technology, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory Page Header Title

  • The Contents
  • The Making of
  • Where Are They Now
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Q & A with Ed Stone

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Where are they now.

  • frequently asked questions
  • Q&A with Ed Stone

Galleries of Images Voyager Took

The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft explored Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune before starting their journey toward interstellar space. Here you'll find some of those iconic images, including "The Pale Blue Dot" - famously described by Carl Sagan - and what are still the only up-close images of Uranus and Neptune.

Jupiters Great Spot

Photography of Jupiter began in January 1979, when images of the brightly banded planet already exceeded the best taken from Earth. Voyager 1 completed its Jupiter encounter in early April, after taking almost 19,000 pictures and many other scientific measurements. Voyager 2 picked up the baton in late April and its encounter continued into August. They took more than 33,000 pictures of Jupiter and its five major satellites.

Image of Saturn

The Voyager 1 and 2 Saturn encounters occurred nine months apart, in November 1980 and August 1981. Voyager 1 is leaving the solar system. Voyager 2 completed its encounter with Uranus in January 1986 and with Neptune in August 1989, and is now also en route out of the solar system.

Image of Uranus

NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft flew closely past distant Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun, in January. At its closet, the spacecraft came within 81,800 kilometers (50,600 miles) of Uranus's cloudtops on Jan. 24, 1986. Voyager 2 radioed thousands of images and voluminous amounts of other scientific data on the planet, its moons, rings, atmosphere, interior and the magnetic environment surrounding Uranus.

Image of Neptune

In the summer of 1989, NASA's Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to observe the planet Neptune, its final planetary target. Passing about 4,950 kilometers (3,000 miles) above Neptune's north pole, Voyager 2 made its closest approach to any planet since leaving Earth 12 years ago. Five hours later, Voyager 2 passed about 40,000 kilometers (25,000 miles) from Neptune's largest moon, Triton, the last solid body the spacecraft will have an opportunity to study.

Image of Neptune

This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed 'Pale Blue Dot', is a part of the first ever 'portrait' of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. From Voyager's great distance Earth is a mere point of light, less than the size of a picture element even in the narrow-angle camera. Earth was a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Coincidentally, Earth lies right in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the sun. This blown-up image of the Earth was taken through three color filters -- violet, blue and green -- and recombined to produce the color image. The background features in the image are artifacts resulting from the magnification.

voyager 1 and 2 interstellar space

NASA scientist viewed first Voyager images. What he saw gave him chills.

I n 1979, Alan Cummings, a scientist working on NASA's unprecedented Voyager mission , entered a Caltech room in Pasadena, California, and saw an unusual, alien world projected on a screen.

The brand-new image, just beamed back from space, revealed a place like no other ever seen. It was a moon teeming with vibrant volcanoes. Cummings, a cosmic-ray physicist at Caltech — the research university that manages the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory — couldn't believe his eyes.

"I thought the Caltech students had pulled a prank," Cummings told Mashable. "But no, it was real."

It was Jupiter's moon Io , the most volcanic place in our solar system. It was nothing like our pale moon , a barren surface beaten into fine dust by countless impacts. On Io, volcanoes erupted. Lava flowed. It was alive .

"It gives me chills, even just now," Cummings, who started working on the Voyager mission 51 years ago, said.

The two Voyager craft, both launched in 1977, were built to last five years . They're now approaching 50 years of operation, and are respectively over 15 and 12 billion miles away. They've left behind the influence of our star and entered interstellar space . "These are the only spacecraft that have been there," Cummings marveled. Decades later, the craft and their antiquated computers have each encountered a number of glitches — which have been repeatedly remedied by a clever group of devoted Voyager engineers.

The latest hurdle, however, could be serious. NASA reported that engineers were still working to fix a stubborn problem the agency identified in December: They can send messages to Voyager 1, but "no science or engineering data is being sent back to Earth." There's an issue with a critical onboard computer, the flight data system. The space agency more recently received a memory "readout" from Voyager 1 (at such a great distance, it takes nearly a day for a message from the craft to reach us), which the team is now scrutinizing for hints of a solution. The prolonged issue has space onlookers worried.

"It gives me chills, even just now."

Indeed, the Voyager craft have continually persevered. But their power is finite. In the coming few years or so, NASA may need to turn off more instruments to preserve dwindling nuclear fuel. Eventually, perhaps in the mid-2030s, communication will cease. But these robotic explorers have forever altered Cummings' view — and our own — of what's out there.

The Voyager missions changed our view of deep space

The Voyager missions, originally conceived to explore Jupiter and Saturn , have vastly exceeded their original two-planet itinerary. For Cummings and some of his Voyager colleagues, that was always the plan. After all, the craft are nuclear-powered; they wouldn't run out of fuel for decades.

"The biggest problem was getting it past the launchpad," the physicist said, recalling a number of failed launches. "A lot of us had a goal of getting to interstellar space."

Soon after launching, both craft made good time to Jupiter, venturing by the gas giant in 1979. They revealed the planet like never before. Scientists saw Jupiter's roiling atmosphere, with vibrant belts of clouds traveling in alternate directions and teeming with giant storms — some bigger than Earth .

"We were shocked and amazed," Cummings said.

But the Jovian moons were stars of the show, too. Besides volcano-blanketed Io, the mission captured views of ice-clad Europa , with giant cracks crisscrossing the surface. Intrigued planetary scientists have continued to investigate Europa, and now suspect a briny ocean — reaching some 40 to 100 miles (60 to 150 kilometers) down — sloshes beneath that icy surface. Another NASA probe, bound for Europa , will soon depart Earth.

"We were shocked and amazed."

Both Voyagers then continued to majestic Saturn. The craft spied astounding detail in the rings, and revealed the nature of the strange Saturnian moons. Mimas , previously known to astronomers as just a little dot in the sky, had been walloped by something. "It looked like the Death Star," Cummings said, referencing the moon-sized space station in Star Wars . The mission also introduced humanity to Titan. Voyager discovered it harbors a thick atmosphere, and possibly seas of methane. Years later, researchers can't stay away. NASA will send a car-sized craft, fitted with eight spinning rotors, to the moon in 2028, a mission called Dragonfly. It will land on Titan's ice-covered dunes , an environment that might have resembled early Earth.

At this juncture, the Voyager craft took disparate paths through the solar system . Voyager 1 continued toward the far reaches of our cosmic neighborhood, while Voyager 2 would first make historic swoops by Uranus and Neptune — the "ice giants." Again, the moons were stars.

For the first time, scientists like Cummings saw worlds like Uranus' icy, grooved moon Miranda. And then there was Neptune's bizarre moon Triton, a world some 3 billion miles away. Voyager 2 detected extreme surface temperatures of minus 391 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 235 degrees Celsius) on this frozen realm. Even so, the moon still shot out miles-high plumes of icy material from geysers.

"It's so amazing we saw all this activity on cold moons," Cummings said.

The Voyager craft, however, weren't nearly finished. After all, it was only 1989.

On Feb. 14, 1990, NASA engineers planned to turn off Voyager 1's cameras to conserve power. The flybys of glorious worlds had ended, and the journey into the farthest reaches of our solar system had begun. But the space agency captured one final group of shots, a "family portrait" of the faraway planets that Voyager left in the dust. Included is a view called the "Pale Blue Dot"; it's a look back home, from some 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) away.

"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us," wrote the famed cosmologist Carl Sagan.

The Voyager craft would press on, surviving perpetual cold and enduring the hazard of galactic cosmic rays — energetic particles created by powerful events in the cosmos, like the explosion of stars .

Both craft have now entered interstellar space, the region between stars. They've traveled beyond the protective balloon of particles and magnetic fields generated by the sun , and have collected unprecedented information about the radiation in an uncharted realm of space (though Voyager 1 isn't currently sending back this information). "The science data that the Voyagers are returning gets more valuable the farther away from the Sun they go, so we are definitely interested in keeping as many science instruments operating as long as possible," Linda Spilker, Voyager’s project scientist, said last year.

Cummings hopes the remaining instruments can stay online for another few years or so, at least until the mission reaches the half-century mark. Yet even when both spacecraft run out of power, the greater mission won't be over. In fact, the longest part of its expedition, as a spacefaring messenger, will commence.

The Voyager craft carry "a kind of time capsule, intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials," NASA explains. "The Voyager message is carried by a phonograph record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth." Included on the album is Chuck Berry's scintillating single, "Johnny B. Goode."

Out in the vast emptiness of space, the craft certainly aren't likely to be smashed by anything. They'll keep going, and going. I asked Cummings if the mission might just keep journeying in perpetuity, for perhaps billions of years.

"It will," he said.

NASA scientist viewed first Voyager images. What he saw gave him chills.


  1. Voyager 1 entering interstellar Space

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  2. Finally! Voyager 2 is Now in Interstellar Space

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  3. Pictures From Voyager 1 And 2

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  4. 'We Made It': Humanity Has Arrived at Interstellar Space

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  5. Voyager 2 probe which launched 42 years ago reaches interstellar space

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  6. Voyager 2 Approaches Interstellar Space

    voyager 1 and 2 interstellar space


  1. NASA has heard the Voyager 2 spacecraft crash!

  2. Voyager 1 Just UNEXPECTEDLY Turned Back On & Sent Out A Terrifying Message

  3. Nasa Warns Us That Voyager 1 Made An Encounter In Deep Space

  4. "Voyager 1 Just Transmitted A Terrifying Message Back To Earth...."

  5. Voyager 2 Just Got Contact With TERRIFYING Unknown Force In Deep Space

  6. NASA Warns That Voyager 1 Has Made Impossible Discovery In Space


  1. Voyager

    At the time, it was at a distance of about 122 AU, or about 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) from the sun. This kind of interstellar exploration is the ultimate goal of the Voyager Interstellar Mission. Voyager 2, which is traveling in a different direction from Voyager 1, crossed the heliopause into interstellar space on November 5, 2018.

  2. Voyager 1 and 2: The Interstellar Mission

    The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft launched from Earth in 1977. Their mission was to explore Jupiter and Saturn —and beyond to the outer planets of our solar system. This was a big task. No human-made object had ever attempted a journey like that before. The two spacecraft took tens of thousands of pictures of Jupiter and Saturn and their moons.

  3. The Voyage to Interstellar Space

    Magnetometer (MAG) data taken from Voyager 1 during its transition into interstellar space in 2012. This graph shows the magnitude, or the strength, of the magnetic field around the heliopause from January 2012 out to May 2014. Before encountering the heliopause, marked by the orange line, the magnetic strength fluctuates quite a bit. After a ...

  4. NASA's Voyager 2 Probe Enters Interstellar Space

    Its twin, Voyager 1, crossed this boundary in 2012, but Voyager 2 carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway into interstellar space. Voyager 2 now is slightly more than 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) from Earth.

  5. Voyager 1

    Voyager 1 is a space probe launched by NASA on September 5, 1977, as part of the Voyager program to study the outer Solar System and the interstellar space beyond the Sun's heliosphere. It was launched 16 days after its twin Voyager 2.

  6. Voyager

    Voyager 1 and its twin Voyager 2 are the only spacecraft ever to operate outside the heliosphere, the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields generated by the Sun. Voyager 1 reached the interstellar boundary in 2012, while Voyager 2 (traveling slower and in a different direction than its twin) reached it in 2018. Mission Type.

  7. Voyager

    Data from this instrument suggested that Voyager 1 entered interstellar space on Aug. 25, 2012, when the inside particles (green) dipped closer to 0.0 and the outside particles (orange) rose to above 2.0. Voyager 1. Cosmic Ray Data. Voyager 2 Distance from the Earth ... The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft explored Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune ...

  8. NASA's Voyager 2 Probe Enters Interstellar Space

    Its twin, Voyager 1, crossed this boundary in 2012, but Voyager 2 carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway into interstellar space. Voyager 2 now is slightly more than 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) from Earth. Mission operators still can communicate with Voyager 2 as ...

  9. Voyager 2

    NASA's Voyager 2 is the second spacecraft to enter interstellar space. On Dec. 10, 2018, the spacecraft joined its twin - Voyager 1 - as the only human-made objects to enter the space between the stars. Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to study all four of the solar system's giant planets at close range. Voyager 2 discovered a 14th moon at ...

  10. Voyager 1 marks 10 years in interstellar space

    Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to explore interstellar space — the space between the stars in a galaxy — when it was 122 astronomical units (AU) away from the sun. (One AU is the ...

  11. Voyager 2 Illuminates Boundary of Interstellar Space

    Voyager 2 has now also measured the temperature of the plasma in nearby interstellar space and confirmed it is colder than the plasma inside the heliosphere. In 2012, Voyager 1 observed a slightly higher-than-expected plasma density just outside the heliosphere, indicating that the plasma is being somewhat compressed.

  12. Voyager 2: An iconic spacecraft that's still exploring 45 years on

    In about 40,000 years Voyager 2 will pass 1.7 light-years (9.7 trillion miles) from the star Ross 248, according to NASA JPL. The cosmic vagabond will continue its journey through interstellar ...

  13. Interstellar space even weirder than expected, NASA's Voyager 2 reveals

    Voyager 2's charge into interstellar space follows that of sibling Voyager 1, which accomplished the same feat in 2012. The two spacecrafts' data have many features in common, such as the ...

  14. NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft is now interstellar. Where to next?

    Voyager 2 may be freshly interstellar, but it won't be anywhere near another star until 40,000 years from now, when it will pass within 1.7 light-years of the small red dwarf star Ross 248.

  15. NASA Communicates with Ailing Voyager 1 Spacecraft

    The problems were at least three layers deep. First, it takes a long time to communicate with Voyager 1. Traveling at the speed of light, the radio signals used to command the spacecraft take 22.5 ...

  16. Finally, engineers have a clue that could help them save Voyager 1

    In 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space when it crossed the heliopause, where the solar wind, the stream of particles emanating from the Sun, push against a so-called galactic wind, the ...

  17. Voyager

    Mission Overview. The twin Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft are exploring where nothing from Earth has flown before. Continuing on their more-than-40-year journey since their 1977 launches, they each are much farther away from Earth and the sun than Pluto. In August 2012, Voyager 1 made the historic entry into interstellar space, the region between ...

  18. Voyager 1, First Craft in Interstellar Space, May Have Gone Dark

    Voyager 1, meanwhile, had set a course for deep space, using its camera to photograph the planets it was leaving behind along the way. Voyager 2 would later begin its own trek into deep space.

  19. Voyager 1

    Voyager 1 was the first spacecraft to cross the heliosphere, the boundary where the influences outside our solar system are stronger than those from our Sun. Voyager 1 is the first human-made object to venture into interstellar space. Voyager 1 discovered a thin ring around Jupiter and two new Jovian moons: Thebe and Metis.

  20. Voyager 1: Facts about Earth's farthest spacecraft

    Voyager 1 is the first spacecraft to travel beyond the solar system and reach interstellar space . The probe launched on Sept. 5, 1977 — about two weeks after its twin Voyager 2 — and as of ...

  21. Alan Cummings Has Worked on the Voyager Mission for Over 50 Years

    Mar 6, 2024, 3:55 PM PST. The Voyager 1 spacecraft launched after Voyager 2. NASA/JPL-Caltech/KSC. Alan Cummings has worked on the Voyager mission for over 50 years. Since their launch, the two ...

  22. Voyager 1 sends back surprising response after 'poke' from NASA

    Meanwhile, Voyager 2 has traveled more than 12.6 billion miles (20.3 billion kilometers) from our planet. Both are in interstellar space and are the only spacecraft ever to operate beyond the ...

  23. Voyager

    (Voyager 1 entered Interstellar Space on August 25, 2012.) Following Voyager 2's closest approach to Neptune on August 25, 1989, the spacecraft flew southward, below the ecliptic plane and onto a course that will take it, too, to interstellar space. Reflecting the Voyagers' new transplanetary destinations, the project is now known as the ...

  24. Ailing Voyager 1 Spacecraft Offers Glimmer Of Hope To NASA

    Voyager 1 launched in 1977 on a mission to study the outer solar system. It just kept on going and eventually crossed into interstellar space in 2012.

  25. NASA finds clue while solving Voyager 1's communication ...

    In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to leave the solar system and enter interstellar space. For 11 years following this achievement, the spacecraft dutifully sent data to ground ...

  26. NASA gave Voyager 1 a 'poke' amid communication woes. Here's why the

    In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to reach interstellar space, followed in 2018 by Voyager 2, according to NA S A. The probes' main mission is to explore the far reaches of our solar ...

  27. 10 Things: Going Interstellar

    Voyager 2, traveling slower than Voyager 1, also toured Uranus and Neptune, and took 41 years to reach interstellar space. The cameras of Voyager 1 on Feb. 14, 1990, pointed back toward the Sun and took a series of pictures of the Sun and the planets, making the first ever "portrait" of our solar system as seen from the outside.

  28. Voyager

    Galleries of Images Voyager Took. The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft explored Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune before starting their journey toward interstellar space. Here you'll find some of those iconic images, including "The Pale Blue Dot" - famously described by Carl Sagan - and what are still the only up-close images of Uranus and Neptune.

  29. NASA scientist viewed first Voyager images. What he saw gave him ...

    On Feb. 14, 1990, NASA engineers planned to turn off Voyager 1's cameras to conserve power. The flybys of glorious worlds had ended, and the journey into the farthest reaches of our solar system ...