Now 40 years old and in interstellar space, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has already been immortalised in these incredible photos.
On 5 September 1977 – two weeks after Voyager 2 – Voyager 1 blasted off from Earth on its mission to photograph and study the outer planets of our solar system.
While hard to imagine now, our only images of these planets at that time were fuzzy and small, as our only way of observing them was through Earth-based telescopes.
The Voyager spacecraft presented an opportunity for scientists to actually see Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – and 48 of their moons – up close and personal for the first time.
As each planet was snapped, the amount of excitement that came with each returned photograph sent NASA’s scientists into raptures as, for the first time, a number of geological breakthroughs were recorded.
Among them were the first images of spewing volcanoes on another planet, the discovery of an Earth-like atmosphere on the Jovian moon of Titan and the first signs of a possible vast ocean beneath the dense, icy crust of Europa.
But, for many, the Voyager 1 spacecraft remains famous for its ‘golden record’: humankind’s message in a bottle to the universe that could (albeit in an unlikely circumstance) lead to an extraterrestrial species finding out about us.
Led by Carl Sagan, the golden record project attempted to cram as much information about our species as possible onto a single disc, including images, sounds and even a diagram explaining how to play the record to an alien species.
So, when news came through that Voyager 1 had broken out of the confines of our solar system in 2012, the realisation that the disc is now going to be travelling for potentially billions of years – long after our planet has been consumed by the sun – began to sink in.
All good things must come to an end
What makes the 40th anniversary perhaps more important than, say, its 50th, is that by that time, NASA estimates that the craft will be, for all intents and purposes, ‘dead’.
Beginning this year, NASA will shut down its instruments, starting with its gyroscopic operations, then its data tape recorder next year and its other instruments by 2020.
After that, the craft’s nuclear power source is expected to finally come to an end sometime between 2025 and 2030, silencing it forever as it continues on its incredible journey.
So, on its 40th birthday, here are just a few of the incredible images returned by the craft that not only changed our perspective on the universe, but our very understanding of it.