This artist's concept depicts NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft entering interstellar space, or the space between stars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Launch Date Sept. 5, 1977
Launch Site Launch Complex 41
Destination Jupiter, Saturn, Beyond Our Solar System
Type Flyby
Status Successful—Extended Mission in Progress
Nation United States
Alternate Names Mariner Jupiter/Saturn A, 10321, 1977-084A

Goals

Voyager 1 and 2 were designed to take advantage of a rare planetary alignment to explore the outer solar system. Voyager 1 targeted Jupiter and Saturn before continuing on to chart the far edges of our solar system.

Accomplishments

Voyager 1 successfully flew by both the Jupiter and Saturn systems before continuing out into the farthest most reaches of our solar system. Voyager 1 has been observing the interplanetary medium throughout its journey, and is now in interstellar space—since August 2012. On Nov. 29, 2017, engineers successfully fired Voyager 1’s thrusters after 37 years of inactivity.

Jupiter Accomplishments

During the Jupiter leg of its journey, Voyager 1 was to explore the giant planet, its magnetosphere and moons in greater detail than the Pioneer spacecraft that preceded it. Voyager 1 was not only to study Jupiter, but to use it as a springboard to Saturn, using the gravity-assist technique.

Voyager 1 succeeded on all counts, with the single exception of experiments using its photopolarimeter, which failed to operate. Jupiter's atmosphere was found to be more active than during the visits of Pioneer 10 and 11, sparking a rethinking of the earlier atmospheric models which could not explain the new features. The spacecraft imaged the moons Amalthea, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, showing details of their terrain for the first time.

Possibly the most stunning of Voyager 1's discoveries was that Io has extremely active volcanoes, powered by heat generated by the stretching and relaxing the moon endures every 42 hours as its elliptical orbit brings it closer to and then farther from Jupiter. This finding revolutionized scientists' concept of the moons of the outer planets. The spacecraft also discovered a thin ring around the planet (then making it the second planet known to have a ring), and two new moons: Thebe and Metis.

Saturn Accomplishments

Voyager 1 targeted Jupiter and Saturn before continuing on to chart the far edges of our solar system.

Voyager 1 was to become the second spacecraft to visit Saturn. Its mission there was to explore the planet and its rings, moons, and magnetic field in greater detail than was possible for its predecessor, Pioneer 11.

Voyager 1 met all of its goals except for the experiments planned for its photopolarimeter, which failed to operate. The spacecraft found three new moons: Prometheus and Pandora, the "shepherding" moons that keep the F ring well-defined, and Atlas which similarly shepherds the A ring. Saturn's largest moon, Titan, was found to have a thick atmosphere which hides its surface from visible-light cameras and telescopes. Spacecraft instruments showed it to be mostly nitrogen, like Earth's atmosphere, but with a surface pressure 1.6 times as high as ours.

The spacecraft also imaged the moons Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, and Rhea; revealed the fine structures of Saturn's complex and beautiful ring system; and added the G ring to the list of known rings.

Just as it used Jupiter's gravity to help it reach Saturn, Voyager 1 used a gravity assist at Saturn to alter its course and increase its speed, giving it a trajectory to take it out of the solar system. Voyager 1 entered interstellar space in August 2012.

Interstellar Accomplishments

In August 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to cross into interstellar space. Here Voyager can sample what space is like beyond our solar system. (If we define the solar system as the sun and everything that primarily orbits the sun, however, Voyager 1 will remain within the confines of the solar system until it emerges from the Oort cloud in another 14,000 to 28,000 years).

Key Dates

Sept. 5, 1977: Launch
Mar. 5, 1979: Jupiter Flyby
Nov. 12, 1980: Saturn Flyby
Feb. 17, 1998: Became Most Distant Human-made Object
Aug. 16, 2006: 100 Astronomical Units Reached
Aug. 1, 2012: Voyager 1 Enters Interstellar Space

In Depth

An alignment of the outer planets that occurs only once in 176 years prompted NASA to plan a grand tour of the outer planets, consisting of dual launches to Jupiter, Saturn and Pluto in 1976-77 and dual launches to Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune in 1979. The original scheme was canceled for budgetary reasons, but it was replaced by Voyager 1 and 2, which accomplished similar goals at significantly lower cost.

The two spacecraft were designed to explore Jupiter and Saturn in more detail than the two Pioneers (Pioneers 10 and 11) that preceded them. Each was equipped with slow-scan color TV to take live television images from the planets, and each also carried an extensive suite of instruments to record magnetic, atmospheric, lunar, and other data about the planets. The original design of the spacecraft was based on that of the older Mariners. Power was provided by three plutonium oxide radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) mounted at the end of a boom.

Voyager 1 was launched after Voyager 2, but because of a faster route, it exited the asteroid belt earlier than its twin. It began its Jovian imaging mission in April 1978 at a range of 265 million km from the planet; images sent back by January the following year indicated that Jupiter's atmosphere was more turbulent than during the Pioneer flybys in 1973 and 1974.

On 10 February 1979, the spacecraft crossed into the Jovian moon system, and in early March, it had already discovered a thin (less than 30 km thick) ring circling Jupiter. Flying past Amalthea, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto (in that order) on 5 March, Voyager 1 returned spectacular photos of their terrain, opening up completely new worlds for planetary scientists to study. The most interesting find was on Io, where images showed a bizarre yellow, orange and brown world with at least eight active volcanoes spewing material into space, making it one of the most (if not the most) geologically active planetary bodies in the solar system. The spacecraft also discovered two new moons, Thebe and Metis. Voyager 1's closest encounter with Jupiter was at 12:05 UT on 5 March 1979 at a range of 280,000 km.

Following the Jupiter encounter, Voyager 1 completed a single course correction on 9 April 1979 in preparation for its rendezvous with Saturn. A second correction on 10 October 1979 ensured that the spacecraft would not hit Saturn's moon Titan. Its flyby of the Saturn system in November 1979 was as spectacular as its previous encounter. Voyager 1 found three new moons: Prometheus and Pandora, the shepherding moons that keep the F ring well-defined, and Atlas which similarly shepherds the A ring. It also discovered a new ring (the G ring) and revealed the intricate structure of the ring system, consisting of thousands of bands.

During its flyby, the spacecraft photographed Saturn's moons Titan, Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, and Rhea. Based on data, all the moons appeared to be largely composed of water ice. Perhaps the most interesting target was Titan, which Voyager 1 passed at 05:41 UT on 12 November at a range of 4,000 km. Images showed a thick atmosphere that completely hid the surface. The spacecraft found that the moon's atmosphere was composed of 90 percent nitrogen. Pressure and temperature at the surface was 1.6 atmospheres and -180 degrees Celsius (-292 degrees Fahrenheit), respectively.

Voyager 1's closest approach to Saturn was at 23:45 UT on 12 November 1980 at a range of 124,000 km. The spacecraft found that about 7 percent of the volume of Saturn's upper atmosphere is helium (compared with 11 percent of Jupiter's atmosphere), while almost all the rest is hydrogen. Since Saturn's internal helium abundance was expected to be the same as Jupiter's and the sun's, the lower abundance of helium in the upper atmosphere may imply that the heavier helium is slowly sinking through Saturn's hydrogen. That might explain the excess heat that Saturn radiates over energy it receives from the sun.

Following the encounter with Saturn, Voyager 1 was on course to escape the solar system at a speed of about 523.6 million km (325.4 million miles or 3.5 AU) per year in the general direction of the sun's motion relative to nearby stars. The spacecraft's trajectory, which had been designed to send it closely past Titan and behind Saturn's rings, bent the spacecraft's path inexorably northward, 35 degrees out of the ecliptic plane, the plane in which the planets orbit the sun. Thus, Voyager 1 could not be sent to Uranus or Neptune.

The official goal of the Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM), as the dual Voyager flights have been called since 1989, is to extend NASA's exploration of the solar system beyond the neighborhood of the outer planets to the outer limits of the sun's sphere of influence, and possibly beyond. Specific goals include collecting data on the heliopause boundary, the outer limits of the sun's magnetic field and the outward flow of the solar wind.

On 17 February 1998, Voyager 1 became the most distant human-made object when it surpassed Pioneer 10's range from Earth. In September 2012, Voyager 1 was 19 billion km (12 billion miles) from our sun. Earlier that same year (August 2012), Voyager 1 passed into interstellar space.

Spacecraft

Launch Vehicle: Titan IIIE-Centaur (TC-6 / Titan no. 23E-6 / Centaur D-1T)

Spacecraft Mass: 2,080 kg (822 kg Mission Module)

Spacecraft Instruments:

  1. maging system
  2. ultraviolet spectrometer
  3. infrared spectrometer
  4. planetary radio astronomy experiment
  5. photopolarimeter
  6. magnetometers
  7. plasma particles experiment
  8. low-energy charged-particles experiment
  9. plasma waves experiment
  10. cosmic-ray telescope

Additional Resources

NASA News: Voyager

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Voyager

National Space Science Data Center Master Catalog: Voyager 1

The Legacy of NASA’s Voyager Mission

Selected References

Siddiqi, Asif A. Deep Space Chronicle: A Chronology of Deep Space and Planetary Probes 1958-2000, NASA, 2002.

Voyager 1 News