At a distance of 13 billion miles from Earth, Voyager 1 is celebrating 40 years of service. The spacecraft, which is on a mission to spread the human race’s scientific and cultural achievements was launched on September 5, 1977, and remains one of our most ambitious undertakings.
Voyager 1 was launched 40 years ago today, just 16 days after its twin, Voyager 2. The pair were sent in opposite directions traveling at around 30,000mph. After four decades, Voyager 1 has managed to take a 2 billion-mile lead at 13 billion miles traveled, making it the first man-made object to travel outside our solar system. Voyager 2 managed to join that exclusive club just a few months ago at 11 billion miles. If you’re having a hard time comprehending the enormity of those distances, it gets worse. Traveling at its current speed, Voyager 1 would need 70,000 years to transverse the 4.22 light-years between our sun and the next nearest star, Alpha Centauri A.
Over their 40-year mission, the Voyagers have given scientists and the public at large their first glimpses of our solar system and space beyond. Professor Fran Bagenal of CU Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) explained how important these glimpses have been stating, “The outer solar system went from being fuzzy planets with dots for moons to a whole set of new and amazing worlds.” The list of the mission’s discoveries is staggering, to say the least, and include 23 new planetary moons orbiting 4 different planets within our solar system, and an Earth-like atmosphere on Saturn’s moon, Titan.
Both Voyagers have an operational capacity that will allow them to continue relaying information back to earth until 2020. Following that deadline, their long-lasting nuclear power plants will be depleted and they will be set adrift among the stars. However, this will not mark the end of their mission. Aboard each Voyager spacecraft are a set of gold-plated records. The records feature photos of Earth, the human race’s scientific discoveries and spoken greetings from people from around the world. If either spacecraft does eventually drift into the path of an intelligent extraterrestrial race, a small part of humanity will have been shared with the universe.