Category: voyager

NASA Science Show & Tell

This week, we’re at one of the biggest science conferences in the country, where our scientists are presenting new results from our missions and projects. It’s called the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting.

Here are a few of the things we shared this week…

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The Sun

A few months into its seven-year mission, Parker Solar Probe has already flown far closer to the Sun than any spacecraft has ever gone. The data from this visit to the Sun has just started to come back to Earth, and scientists are hard at work on their analysis.

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Parker Solar Probe sent us this new view of the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona. The image was taken by the mission’s WISPR instrument on Nov. 8, 2018, and shows a coronal streamer seen over the east limb of the Sun. Coronal streamers are structures of solar material within the Sun’s atmosphere, the corona, that usually overlie regions of increased solar activity. The fine structure of the streamer is very clear, with at least two rays visible. Parker Solar Probe was about 16.9 million miles from the Sun’s surface when this image was taken. The bright object near the center of the image is Mercury, and the dark spots are a result of background correction.

Hurricane Maria

Using a satellite view of human lights, our scientists watched the lights go out in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. They could see the slow return of electricity to the island, and track how rural and mountainous regions took longer to regain power.

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In the spring, a team of scientists flew a plane over Puerto Rico’s forests, using a laser instrument to measure how trees were damaged and how the overall structure of the forests had changed.

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Earth’s Ice

Our scientists who study Antarctica saw some surprising changes to East Antarctica. Until now, most of the continent’s melting has been on the peninsula and West Antarctica, but our scientists have seen glaciers in East Antarctica lose lots of ice in the last few years.

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Our ICESat-2 team showed some of their brand new data. From the changing height of Antarctic ice to lagoons off the coast of Mexico, the little satellite has spent its first few months measuring our planet in 3D. The laser pulses even see individual ocean waves, in this graph.

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Scientists are using our satellite data to track Adélie penguin populations, by using an unusual proxy – pictures of their poop! Penguins are too small to be seen by satellites, but they can see large amounts of their poop (which is pink!) and use that as a proxy for penguin populations.

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Asteroid Bennu

Our OSIRIS-REx mission recently arrived at its destination, asteroid Bennu. On approach, data from the spacecraft’s spectrometers revealed chemical signatures of water trapped in clay minerals.  While Bennu itself is too small to have ever hosted liquid water, the finding indicates that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu’s parent body, a much larger asteroid.

We also released a new, detailed shape model of Bennu, which is very similar to our ground-based observations of Bennu’s shape. This is a boon to ground-based radar astronomy since this is our first validation of the accuracy of the method for an asteroid! One change from the original shape model is the size of the large boulder near Bennu’s south pole, nicknamed “Benben.” The boulder is much bigger than we thought and overall, the quantity of boulders on the surface is higher than expected. Now the team will make further observations at closer ranges to more accurately assess where a sample can be taken on Bennu to later be returned to Earth.

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Jupiter

The Juno mission celebrated it’s 16th science pass of #Jupiter, marking the halfway point in data collection of the prime mission. Over the second half of the prime mission — science flybys 17 through 32 — the spacecraft will split the difference, flying exactly halfway between each previous orbit. This will provide coverage of the planet every 11.25 degrees of longitude, providing a more detailed picture of what makes the whole of Jupiter tick.

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Mars

The Mars 2020 team had a workshop to discuss the newly announced landing site for our next rover on the Red Planet. The landing site…Jezero Crater! The goal of Mars 2020 is to learn whether life ever existed on Mars. It’s too cold and dry for life to exist on the Martian surface today. But after Jezero Crater formed billions of years ago, water filled it to form a deep lake about the same size as Lake Tahoe. Eventually, as Mars’ climate changed, Lake Jezero dried up. And surface water disappeared from the planet.

Interstellar Space

Humanity now has two interstellar ambassadors. On Nov. 5, 2018, our Voyager 2 spacecraft left the heliosphere — the bubble of the Sun’s magnetic influence formed by the solar wind. It’s only the second-ever human-made object to enter interstellar space, following its twin, Voyager 1, that left the heliosphere in 2012.

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Scientists are especially excited to keep receiving data from Voyager 2, because — unlike Voyager 1 — its plasma science instrument is still working. That means we’ll learn brand-new information about what fills the space between the stars.

Learn more about NASA Science at science.nasa.gov

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For the second time in history, a human-made o…

For the second time in history, a human-made object has reached the space between the stars. Our Voyager 2 probe now has exited the heliosphere – the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun.

Comparing data from different instruments aboard the trailblazing spacecraft, mission scientists determined the probe crossed the outer edge of the heliosphere on Nov. 5. This boundary, called the heliopause, is where the tenuous, hot solar wind meets the cold, dense interstellar medium. 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 it enters this new phase of its journey, but information – moving at the speed of light – takes about 16.5 hours to travel from the spacecraft to Earth. By comparison, light traveling from the Sun takes about eight minutes to reach Earth.

Read more at https://go.nasa.gov/2QG2s16 or follow along with the mission @NASAVoyager on Twitter.

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Solar System: 10 Things to Know This Week

Pioneer Days

Someone’s got to be first. In space, the first explorers beyond Mars were Pioneers 10 and 11, twin robots who charted the course to the cosmos.

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1-Before Voyager

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Voyager, with its outer solar system tour and interstellar observations, is often credited as the greatest robotic space mission. But today we remember the plucky Pioneers, the spacecraft that proved Voyager’s epic mission was possible.

2-Where No One Had Gone Before

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Forty-five years ago this week, scientists still weren’t sure how hard it would be to navigate the main asteroid belt, a massive field of rocky debris between Mars and Jupiter. Pioneer 10 helped them work that out, emerging from first the first six-month crossing in February 1973. Pioneer 10 logged a few meteoroid hits (fewer than expected) and taught engineers new tricks for navigating farther and farther beyond Earth.

3-Trailblazer No. 2

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Pioneer 11 was a backup spacecraft launched in 1973 after Pioneer 10 cleared the asteroid belt. The new mission provided a second close look at Jupiter, the first close-up views of Saturn and also gave Voyager engineers plotting an epic multi-planet tour of the outer planets a chance to practice the art of interplanetary navigation.

4-First to Jupiter

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Three-hundred and sixty-three years after humankind first looked at Jupiter through a telescope, Pioneer 10 became the first human-made visitor to the Jovian system in December 1973. The spacecraft spacecraft snapped about 300 photos during a flyby that brought it within 81,000 miles (about 130,000 kilometers) of the giant planet’s cloud tops.

5-Pioneer Family

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Pioneer began as a Moon program in the 1950s and evolved into increasingly more complicated spacecraft, including a Pioneer Venus mission that delivered a series of probes to explore deep into the mysterious toxic clouds of Venus. A family portrait (above) showing (from left to right) Pioneers 6-9, 10 and 11 and the Pioneer Venus Orbiter and Multiprobe series. Image date: March 11, 1982. 

6-A Pioneer and a Pioneer

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Classic rock has Van Halen, we have Van Allen. With credits from Explorer 1 to Pioneer 11, James Van Allen was a rock star in the emerging world of planetary exploration. Van Allen (1914-2006) is credited with the first scientific discovery in outer space and was a fixture in the Pioneer program. Van Allen was a key part of the team from the early attempts to explore the Moon (he’s pictured here with Pioneer 4) to the more evolved science platforms aboard Pioneers 10 and 11.

7-The Farthest…For a While

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For more than 25 years, Pioneer 10 was the most distant human-made object, breaking records by crossing the asteroid belt, the orbit of Jupiter and eventually even the orbit of Pluto. Voyager 1, moving even faster, claimed the most distant title in February 1998 and still holds that crown.

8-Last Contact

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We last heard from Pioneer 10 on Jan. 23, 2003. Engineers felt its power source was depleted and no further contact should be expected. We tried again in 2006, but had no luck. The last transmission from Pioneer 11 was received in September 1995. Both missions were planned to last about two years.

9-Galactic Ghost Ships

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Pioneers 10 and 11 are two of five spacecraft with sufficient velocity to escape our solar system and travel into interstellar space. The other three—Voyagers 1 and 2 and New Horizons—are still actively talking to Earth. The twin Pioneers are now silent. Pioneer 10 is heading generally for the red star Aldebaran, which forms the eye of Taurus (The Bull). It will take Pioneer over 2 million years to reach it. Pioneer 11 is headed toward the constellation of Aquila (The Eagle) and will pass nearby in about 4 million years.

10-The Original Message to the Cosmos

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Years before Voyager’s famed Golden Record, Pioneers 10 and 11 carried the original message from Earth to the cosmos. Like Voyager’s record, the Pioneer plaque was the brainchild of Carl Sagan who wanted any alien civilization who might encounter the craft to know who made it and how to contact them. The plaques give our location in the galaxy and depicts a man and woman drawn in relation to the spacecraft.

Read the full version of this week’s 10 Things article HERE

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Voyager 1’s thrusters fired up for first time …

Voyager 1’s thrusters fired up for first time since 1980:

The venerable Voyager 1 spacecraft.  Still impressing after all these years. 

Spooky Sounds from Across the Solar System

Soaring to the depths of our universe, gallant spacecraft roam the cosmos, snapping images of celestial wonders. Some spacecraft have instruments capable of capturing radio emissions. When scientists convert these to sound waves, the results are eerie to hear.

In time for Halloween, we’ve put together a compilation of elusive “sounds” of howling planets and whistling helium that is sure to make your skin crawl.

Listen to a few here and visit our Soundcloud for more spooky sounds. 

Cassini Ring Crossing

This eerie audio represents data collected by our Cassini spacecraft, as it crossed through the gap between Saturn and its rings on April 26, 2017, during the first dive of the mission’s Grand Finale. The instrument is able to record ring particles striking the spacecraft in its data. In the data from this dive, there is virtually no detectable peak in pops and cracks that represent ring particles striking the spacecraft. The lack of discernible pops and cracks indicates the region is largely free of small particles. 

Voyager Tsunami Waves in Interstellar Space 

Listen to this howling audio from our Voyager 1 spacecraft. Voyager 1 has experienced three “tsunami waves” in interstellar space. This kind of wave occurs as a result of a coronal mass ejection erupting from the Sun. The most recent tsunami wave that Voyager experienced began in February 2014, and may still be going. Listen to how these waves cause surrounding ionized matter to ring like a bell.

Voyager Sounds of Interstellar Space

Our Voyager 1 spacecraft captured these high-pitched, spooky sounds of interstellar space from October to November 2012 and April to May 2013.

The soundtrack reproduces the amplitude and frequency of the plasma waves as “heard” by Voyager 1. The waves detected by the instrument antennas can be simply amplified and played through a speaker. These frequencies are within the range heard by human ears.

When scientists extrapolated this line even further back in time (not shown), they deduced that Voyager 1 first encountered interstellar plasma in August 2012.

Plasma Sounds at Jupiter

Ominous sounds of plasma! Our Juno spacecraft has observed plasma wave signals from Jupiter’s ionosphere. The results in this video show an increasing plasma density as Juno descended into Jupiter’s ionosphere during its close pass by Jupiter on February 2, 2017.  

Roar of Jupiter

Juno’s Waves instrument recorded this supernatural sounding encounter with the bow shock over the course of about two hours on June 24, 2016. “Bow shock” is where the supersonic solar wind is heated and slowed by Jupiter’s magnetosphere. It is analogous to a sonic boom on Earth. The next day, June 25, 2016, the Waves instrument witnessed the crossing of the magnetopause. “Trapped continuum radiation” refers to waves trapped in a low-density cavity in Jupiter’s magnetosphere.

Visit the NASA Soundcloud for more spooky space sounds: https://soundcloud.com/nasa/sets/spookyspacesounds

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Thanks to the twin Voyager spacecraft, music is truly universal:…

Thanks to the twin Voyager spacecraft, music is truly universal: Each carries a Golden Record with sights, sounds and songs from Earth as it sails on through the Milky Way. Recalling the classic rock era of the late 1970s when the Voyagers launched, this poster is an homage to the mission’s greatest hits. Some of the most extraordinary discoveries of the probes’ first 40 years include the volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io, the hazy nitrogen atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan and the cold geysers on Neptune’s moon Triton. Voyager 1 is also the first spacecraft to deliver a portrait of our planets from beyond Neptune, depicting Earth as a ‘pale blue dot,’ as of Aug. 25, 2012, to enter interstellar space. Voyager 2 is expected to enter interstellar space in the coming years. Even after 40 years, the Voyagers’ hits just keep on coming.  

Enjoy this and other Voyager anniversary posters. Download them for free here: https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/downloads/

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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The twin Voyager spacecraft, which launched in 1977, are our…

The twin Voyager spacecraft, which launched in 1977, are our ambassadors to the rest of the Milky Way, destined to continue orbiting the center of our galaxy for billions of years after they stop communicating with Earth. On Aug. 25, 2012, Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to enter interstellar space, and Voyager 2 is expected to cross over in the next few years. At age 40, the Voyagers are the farthest and longest-operating spacecraft and still have plenty more to discover. This poster captures the spirit of exploration, the vastness of space and the wonder that has fueled this ambitious journey to the outer planets and beyond.

Enjoy this and other Voyager anniversary posters. Download them for free here: https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/downloads/

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Voyager: The Space Between

Our Voyager 1 spacecraft officially became the first human-made object to venture into interstellar space in 2012. 

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Whether and when our Voyager 1 spacecraft broke through to interstellar space, the space between stars, has been a thorny issue. 

In 2012, claims surfaced every few months that Voyager 1 had “left our solar system.” Why had the Voyager team held off from saying the craft reached interstellar space until 2013?

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Basically, the team needed more data on plasma, which is an ionozied gas that exists throughout space. (The glob of neon in a storefront sign is an example of plasma).

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Plasma is the most important marker that distinguishes whether Voyager 1 is inside the solar bubble, known as the heliosphere.  The heliosphere is defined by the constant stream of plasma that flows outward from our Sun – until it meets the boundary of interstellar space, which contains plasma from other sources.

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Adding to the challenge: they didn’t know how they’d be able to detect it.

No one has been to interstellar space before, so it’s  like traveling with guidebooks that are incomplete.

Additionally, Voyager 1’s plasma instrument, which measures the density, temperature and speed of plasma, stopped working in 1980, right after its last planetary flyby.

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When Voyager 1 detected the pressure of interstellar space on our heliosphere in 2004, the science team didn’t have the instrument that would provide the most direct measurements of plasma. 

Voyager 1 Trajectory

Instead, they focused on the direction of the magnetic field as a proxy for source of the plasma. Since solar plasma carries the magnetic field lines emanating from the Sun and interstellar plasma carries interstellar magnetic field lines, the directions of the solar and interstellar magnetic fields were expected to differ.

Voyager 2 Trajectory

In May 2012, the number of galactic cosmic rays made its first significant jump, while some of the inside particles made their first significant dip. The pace of change quickened dramatically on July 28, 2012. After five days, the intensities returned to what they had been. This was the first taste test of a new region, and at the time Voyager scientists thought the spacecraft might have briefly touched the edge of interstellar space.

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By Aug. 25, when, as we now know, Voyager 1 entered this new region for good, all the lower-energy particles from inside zipped away. Some inside particles dropped by more than a factor of 1,000 compared to 2004. However, subsequent analysis of the magnetic field data revealed that even though the magnetic field strength jumped by 60% at the boundary, the direction changed less than 2 degrees. This suggested that Voyager 1 had not left the solar magnetic field and had only entered a new region, still inside our solar bubble, that had been depleted of inside particles.

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Then, in April 2013, scientists got another piece of the puzzle by chance. For the first eight years of exploring the heliosheath, which is the outer layer of the heliosphere, Voyager’s plasma wave instrument had heard nothing. But the plasma wave science team had observed bursts of radio waves in 1983 and 1984 and again in 1992 and 1993. They determined these bursts were produced by the interstellar plasma when a large outburst of solar material would plow into it and cause it to oscillate.

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It took about 400 days for such solar outbursts to reach interstellar space, leading to an estimated distance of 117 to 177 AU (117 to 177 times the distance from the Sun to the Earth) to the heliopause.

Then on April 9, 2013, it happened: Voyager 1’s plasma wave instrument picked up local plasma oscillations. Scientists think they probably stemmed from a burst of solar activity from a year before. The oscillations increased in pitch through May 22 and indicated that Voyager was moving into an increasingly dense region of plasma.

The above soundtrack reproduces the amplitude and frequency of the plasma waves as “heard” by Voyager 1. The waves detected by the instrument antennas can be simply amplified and played through a speaker. These frequencies are within the range heard by human ears.

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When they extrapolated back, they deduced that Voyager had first encountered this dense interstellar plasma in Aug. 2012, consistent with the sharp boundaries in the charged particle and magnetic field data on Aug. 25.

In the end, there was general agreement that Voyager 1 was indeed outside in interstellar space, but that location comes with some disclaimers. They determined the spacecraft is in a mixed transitional region of interstellar space. We don’t know when it will reach interstellar space free from the influence of our solar bubble.

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Voyager 1, which is working with a finite power supply, has enough electrical power to keep operating the fields and particles science instruments through at least 2020, which will make 43 years of continual operation.

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Voyager 1 will continue sending engineering data for a few more years after the last science instrument is turned off, but after that it will be sailing on as a silent ambassador. 

In about 40,000 years, it will be closer to the star AC +79 3888 than our own Sun.

And for the rest of time, Voyager 1 will continue orbiting around the heart of the Milky Way galaxy, with our Sun but a tiny point of light among many.

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Planets: As Seen by Voyager

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 images, including “The Pale Blue Dot” – famously described by Carl Sagan – and what are still the only up-close images of Uranus and Neptune.

These twin spacecraft took some of the very first close-up images of these planets and paved the way for future planetary missions to return, like the Juno spacecraft at Jupiter, Cassini at Saturn and New Horizons at Pluto.

Jupiter

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Photography of Jupiter began in January 1979, when images of the brightly banded planet already exceeded the best taken from Earth. They took more than 33,000 pictures of Jupiter and its five major satellites. 

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Findings:

  • Erupting volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io, which has 100 times the volcanic activity of Earth. 
  • Better understanding of important physical, geological, and atmospheric processes happening in the planet, its satellites and magnetosphere.
  • Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere with dozens of interacting hurricane-like storm systems.

Saturn

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The Saturn encounters occurred nine months apart, in November 1980 and August 1981. The two encounters increased our knowledge and altered our understanding of Saturn. The extended, close-range observations provided high-resolution data far different from the picture assembled during centuries of Earth-based studies.

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Findings:

  • Saturn’s atmosphere is almost entirely hydrogen and helium.
  • Subdued contrasts and color differences on Saturn could be a result of more horizontal mixing or less production of localized colors than in Jupiter’s atmosphere.
  • An indication of an ocean beneath the cracked, icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa. 
  • Winds blow at high speeds in Saturn. Near the equator, the Voyagers measured winds about 1,100 miles an hour.

Uranus

The Voyager 2 spacecraft flew closely past distant Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun. At its closest, the spacecraft came within 50,600 miles of Uranus’s cloud tops 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.

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Findings:

  • Revealed complex surfaces indicative of varying geologic pasts.
  • Detected 11 previously unseen moons.
  • Uncovered the fine detail of the previously known rings and two newly detected rings.
  • Showed that the planet’s rate of rotation is 17 hours, 14 minutes.
  • Found that the planet’s magnetic field is both large and unusual.
  • Determined that the temperature of the equatorial region, which receives less sunlight over a Uranian year, is nevertheless about the same as that at the poles.

Neptune

Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to observe the planet Neptune in the summer of 1989. Passing about 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 25,000 miles from Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, the last solid body the spacecraft had the opportunity to study.

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Findings: 

  • Discovered Neptune’s Great Dark Spot
  • Found that the planet has strong winds, around 1,000 miles per hour
  • Saw geysers erupting from the polar cap on Neptune’s moon Triton at -390 degrees Fahrenheit

Solar System Portrait

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. 

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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.

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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.

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“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” – Carl Sagan

Both spacecraft will continue to study ultraviolet sources among the stars, and their fields and particles detectors will continue to search for the boundary between the Sun’s influence and interstellar space. The radioisotope power systems will likely provide enough power for science to continue through 2025, and possibly support engineering data return through the mid-2030s. After that, the two Voyagers will continue to orbit the center of the Milky Way.

Learn more about the Voyager spacecraft HERE.

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