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Voyager mission graphic

Phase: Operating

Launch Date: September 05, 1977

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Program(s):Heliophysics Research, Outer Planets Flagship

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Voyager approaches final frontier
Voyager approaches final frontier.

An artist's concept illustrates the positions of the Voyager spacecraft in relation to structures formed around our Sun by the solar wind. Also illustrated is the termination shock, a violent region the spacecraft must pass through before reaching the outer limits of the solar system. At the termination shock, the supersonic solar wind abruptly slows from an average speed of 400 kilometers per second to less than 100 kilometer per second (900,000 to less than 225,000 miles per hour).

Beyond the termination shock is the solar system's final frontier, the heliosheath, a vast region where the turbulent and hot solar wind is compressed as it presses outward against the interstellar wind that is beyond the heliopause. A bow shock likely forms as the interstellar wind approaches and is deflected around the heliosphere, forcing it into a teardrop-shaped structure with a long, comet-like tail.

The exact location of the termination shock is unknown, and it originally was thought to be closer to the Sun than Voyager 1 currently is. As Voyager 1 cruised ever farther from the Sun, it confirmed that all the planets are inside an immense bubble blown by the solar wind and the termination shock was much more distant.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Walt Feimer

The twin spacecraft Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched by NASA in separate months in the summer of 1977 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. As originally designed, the Voyagers were to conduct closeup studies of Jupiter and Saturn, Saturn's rings, and the larger moons of the two planets.

To accomplish their two-planet mission, the spacecraft were built to last five years. But as the mission went on, and with the successful achievement of all its objectives, the additional flybys of the two outermost giant planets, Uranus and Neptune, proved possible -- and irresistible to mission scientists and engineers at the Voyagers' home at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

As the spacecraft flew across the solar system, remote-control reprogramming was used to endow the Voyagers with greater capabilities than they possessed when they left the Earth. Their two-planet mission became four. Their five-year lifetimes stretched to 12 and more.

Eventually, between them, Voyager 1 and 2 would explore all the giant outer planets of our solar system, 48 of their moons, and the unique systems of rings and magnetic fields those planets possess.

Had the Voyager mission ended after the Jupiter and Saturn flybys alone, it still would have provided the material to rewrite astronomy textbooks. But having doubled their already ambitious itineraries, the Voyagers returned to Earth information over the years that has revolutionized the science of planetary astronomy, helping to resolve key questions while raising intriguing new ones about the origin and evolution of the planets in our solar system.

Between them, the Voyagers explored all the giant outer planets of our solar system, 48 of their moons, and the unique systems of rings and magnetic fields those planets possess. Both spacecraft continue to send back data, providing scientists with valuable observations of the solar system's edge and interstellar space. Voyager 1 is now the furthest human-made object from the Sun, having surpassed Pioneer 10 on February 17, 1998.