September 05 – Voyager 1

Launched September 5th 1977, Voyager 1 is now, nearly 40 years later, close to 20 billion km (132 AU) from the Sun, and still working.  I say from the Sun because it sometimes gets closer to the earth due to the speed of this planet around our star.  It has recently been announced that Voyager 1 has finally reached interstellar space, although as it is still some years from the inner edge of the Oort Cloud, I’m not so sure.

Voyager 1  (image credit: NASA)

Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)

I won’t say too much here about what Voyager 1 achieved, because there will be other opportunities for that on the anniversaries of its encounters with Jupiter (April 13) and Saturn (December 14).

All we need to mention here is the launch, via a Titan launch vehicle (that’s a rocket to you and me) from Cape Canaveral, two weeks after Voyager 2. Voyager 1, following a shorter trajectory, reached Jupiter and Saturn first though, so the numbering system makes sense.

Launch of Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)

Launch of Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)

The timing of the Voyager missions was spookily convenient. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune line up in such a way as to optimise a “gravity assist” flyby of all four every 175 years. This alignment coincided nicely with the technology necessary for the flight becoming available in the late 1970s. Even so, the cost of building a spacecraft capable of definitely making it as far as Neptune was so great that most of the effort went into ensuring a successful mission as far as Saturn, with finger-crossing and prayer being employed for the remainder of the trip.

As it happened, of course, they both turned out to be even more reliable than a Lexus, and they, with their golden discs, continue to carry greetings from Earth, and the music of Chuck Berry, to the edge of the Solar System and beyond. (Did anybody ever stop to consider whether Johnny B. Goode might be a declaration of war on some planets?)

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