February 17 – Voyager 1 breaks Distance Record

On February 17, 1998, Voyager 1 became the most distant man made object when it passed the previous record holder, Pioneer 10.

Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)
Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)

Voyager 1 reminds me just how far we still have to go in space exploration. When Brooke Bond started putting their Race Into Space cards in packs of PG Tips tea in the early 1970’s I was confident that we’d have colonies living on the Moon by now and be on our way to Mars, if not already there. I thought that unmanned probes would be hurtling to the nearest stars by the year 2000 (which, by the way, still sounds like it should be in the future), and Star Trek would be a reality by the time I reached middle-age.

But as it happens, the farthest we’ve got is 13.8 billion miles (as at February 15, 2020). Now I know that sounds a long way, and my Ford Focus would struggle with it, but in interstellar terms it only just barely qualifies as “interstellar” at all. The region Voyager 1 is currently exploring is thought to be just beyond the extent of the Sun’s influence, and therefore deserves the name “interstellar”. The problem is, it has taken 42 years to get there, and will almost certainly run out of battery power before it reaches anywhere else interesting (like the Oort Cloud).


1868 – Asteroids 96 Aegle and 97 Klotho were discovered today, but by different people. Aegle was spotted by Corsican astronomer Jérôme Coggia (the first of his five asteroids), and Klotho was found by Ernst Tempel, who also discovered five asteroids, but was, like Coggia, more of a comet man.


1873 Asteroid 130 Elektra discovered by C H F Peters. Elektra is an elongated (roughly 215 x 112 km) G-type asteroid in the outer main belt. G-types are relatively uncommon, but among their number is Ceres, the first asteroid to be discovered.

Elektra (with Orestes and Hermes) at the tomb of Agamemnon. Louvre, Paris.
Elektra (with Orestes and Hermes) at the tomb of Agamemnon. Louvre, Paris.

Electra, in Greek mythology, was a Princess of Argos, a city on the Peloponnese. She helped her brother, Orestes, kill their mother Clytemnestra (who had murdered their father, Agamemnon). A detail from the story is depicted on the ‘red figure’ pelike shown above. A pelike is a ceramic container of similar design to an amphora, but with the advantage that it can stand up on its own.


1879 Johann Palisa discovers S-type asteroid 192 Nausikaa. It is named after a princess in the Odyssey, the daughter of King Alkinous of Phaeacia. Nausikaa is approximately 90 km wide, with an apparent magnitude of 7.13.


1959 Launch of weather satellite Vanguard 2, with a 19-day mission to study cloud cover. Despite the limited extent of the working life, Vanguard 2 is still up there, and is not expected to come back down for another 250 years or so.