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The Voyager Probes – From Earth to an Extrasolar experience

A brief look at the history of the Voyager Probes

By Chris Wilkinson Thu 27 Feb, 2020 10:47 AM
In most recent years humanity has been focused on exploring as much of the solar system as we can with probes such as New Horizon which was launched back in 2006 and gave us some of the best pictures of Pluto and Ultima Thule that we’ve seen whilst also uncovering a new piece of the planetary formation puzzle (Arrokoth) to the Parker Solar Probe which is currently examining our own sun so we can understand it better. Both of these projects have and will expand the wealth of human knowledge.

However, almost fifty-five years ago, there was an idea to launch a number of probes towards the larger outer planets to investigate them closely and in August 1977, Voyager 2 launched from the Kennedy Space Center. While this probe was launched first, it would actually be the second probe to arrive at Jupiter and Saturn (Hence why it was named Voyager 2). Just over 2 weeks later Voyager 1 launched.

One of the most famous pictures was taken by Voyager 1 which was of the Earth and Moon as it sped away from our small planet to go and investigate those larger planets that we didn’t have much information about at the time as man had only stepped on the moon a decade earlier.

Additionally, each probe was equipped with a golden record disc whose contents were selected by a committee led by Carl Sagan. Each disc was identical and contained information for a civilisation to be able to listen to and understand the discs, with images encoded within it as well. These discs if discovered, will hopefully help an alien intelligence learn more about humanity as a people, or if they are discovered in the future by explorers from our own planet, a time capsule they can use to see into the past.


Two years after launching from the Earth, Voyager 1 arrived at Jupiter where it found the first active volcanoes seen off of planet Earth on Io, the first lightning seen on another planet was on Jupiter and they found out that the red spot was actually a storm. These were all important discoveries as it showed that some of the phenomena that we see here on planet Earth can be found elsewhere. Four months later, Voyager 2 arrived and got us the first images of Jupiter’s ring system and also showed that some of the volcanoes found by the first probe, were still erupting which let us know that this wasn’t a permanent thing on the moon, although, they did last for quite some time.


It only took Voyager 1 another year to reach Saturn and it took several photos but more crucially it discovered some new moons around the gas giant. It also let us learn more about Titan such as information about its atmosphere which was found to be thick and earth like. Voyager 2 arrived at Saturn just under a year later and came close to a number of it’s moons as well although we saw a number of different moons due to their different routes.

Uranus (Please hold the giggles)

Only Voyager 2 visited Uranus in 1986 and this was the first mission to reach the mysterious (and unfortunately named) planet. This was crucial as it showed us 11 new moons in orbit of the planet but it also gave us a number of new discoveries such as Uranus being the coldest planet in the solar system as it was the first time anything had detected a temperature of 59 Kelvin (-214.15c, -353.47f) and this was the first time the Deep Space Network was used to pick up signals from a spacecraft. This is because at the distance that Voyager 2 had reached, the signal back was much weaker so the DSN was completed in August 1987 and is made up of 3 large satellite dishes located in California, Spain and Australia.

Extrasolar/Current Day

Each of the voyager probes right now is sailing off out of our solar system, with Voyager 1 leaving the Heliosphere in 2004 and Voyager 2 in 2007. However due to their age and mission at this point each one isn’t fully operational with Voyager 2 having more instruments online (Only the Plasma Science module is active on Voyager 2 compared to 1). However, what is available is till able to provide a lot more information about what each probe is currently encountering outside of the sheath around our solar system.

It takes approximately 20 hours for communication to transmit one way to Voyager 1 (as of 27th February 2020) and approximately 17 hours for Voyager 2. They are both over 10 billion miles away from our planet (You could travel from London to New York approx. 2.8 million times to equate to that distance) which is an astounding feat and have been working for over 40 years.

What’s interesting, is despite the distance, and long time between calls, back in January the Jet Propulsion Laboratory told the world that Voyager 2 was having minor technical issues. This was due to two system which both require a lot of power being left on at the same time, which due to the Radioisotope Thermometric Generator (RTG) at the heart of the probes advanced age, it couldn’t provide all of this. This will have made for a tricky repair as due to the distance, there would have been 34 hours delay before the scientists and engineers knew whether their fixes worked.

Unfortunately, as time goes on the RTG’s at the core of each of these spacecrafts will become less effective than they were at launch, as they used a nuclear isotope at their heart which decays over time. It means that less of the scientific instruments can be run until, its estimated in 2032 there may not be enough power for the probes to communicate with the Earth. If each probe lasts to this point, they will be approximately 54 years old and will continue their journey silently into the galaxy where hopefully, they’ll be found and the legacy of those bold scientists back in the 1970’s will carry on.

Going forward from here, hopefully NASA or some other space agency will launch more missions outside of our solar system to explore other solar systems. There are proposed technologies for this such as Solar Sails and lasers being one of the more promising. Only time will tell however, but we can always live in hope that someday we will move away from our home planet and into the galaxy.

What did you think of this article? What do you think of the Voyager space probes? Let us know!

WRITTEN BY Chris Wilkinson
EDITED BY Infinity
Thu 27 Feb, 2020 1:53 PM

Thank you so much for this very good and informative article. Well done! Smile

It’s amazing how old these probes are, how much they’ve found out and discovered so far - and yet, this is only the beginning.

To boldly go... Live Long and Prosper
Thu 27 Feb, 2020 2:26 PM
Thanks Alex Smile and I was surprised as well when it came to researching this. The probes have been going for so long and still are providing insights into things we're only just discovering such as space outside the core of our solar system.

I always like looking back at things such as this.
Thu 27 Feb, 2020 7:03 PM
Those discs have always fascinated me. How do you decide what to put on them? What kind of info can be so basic that it would be believed to be decipherable by other species? I have a t-shirt with the diagrams that where drawn on it. It surprises me the amount of people that recognize it when I wear it. Great article Chris!
Thu 27 Feb, 2020 7:56 PM
Awesome article.Thumbs up

I saw a program last year that said that these probes will probably be the last surviving evidence of Earth's existence in the far future. Once the Solar System has been turned back into stellar dust and nothing remains of our Sun these probes will be in deep space. Assuming they never collide with anything they will go travelling onward for an eternity until their very atoms break down into constituent particles!
Thu 27 Feb, 2020 9:24 PM
Yeah, I didn't realise what kind of things they had on it especially considering they've pretty much put everything in place for other cultures to be able to listen to them as well.

Also thanks Silek Smile
Thu 27 Feb, 2020 10:16 PM
Well done, Chris😊 excellent work - I'm proud of you 😇