Mission Cup 2021 Semi-Finalist: Voyager 2 – the wandering mission pushing the limits of exploration

NASA’s Voyager 2 mission was launched in 1977 along with its sister Voyager 1 mission to explore the outer Solar System and beyond. The Voyager 2 spacecraft took in a grand tour of flybys of the Jupiter (in 1979) and Saturnian (1981) systems, studying and imaging these spectacular gas giant planets and many of their moons using a variety of spectrometers and techniques. It confirmed that Jupiter’s moon Io was volcanically active and erupting jets of sulphur-rich pyroclastic material high above its surface, and imaged new moons that had not been seen before. After these gas giant encounters, Voyager 2 extended its mission, adjusted its course, and travelled on to intercept the ice giants Uranus (1986) and Neptune (1987) and their moons. It discovered an array of new moons, imaged the surface of Neptune’s moon Triton identifying a nitrogen powered geyser system of cryovolcanism, and detected that Neptune has a thin ring system. 

Voyager 2 approaching Saturn in true colour, revealing its moons Tethys, Dione, and Rhea. Image: NASA

To date Voyager 2 is the only mission that has visited these two outermost Solar System planets, and amazingly the mission is still working today some 43 years after launch! Getting to, and studying outer Solar System bodies is incredible challenging to do, which is why so few missions have travelled out beyond the asteroid belt. The Voyager 2 probe not only achieved visiting all of the gas and ice giant planets, but also left the boundaries of our Solar System and crossed into interstellar space in 2018, and is predicted to still have on board power (fuelled by a nuclear generator) to continue to send data back to the Earth until about 2025. After this time, it will continue silently out into the cosmos, taking with it a golden plaque bearing witness to where the spacecraft came from as a visual and audible record of humanity.

The Voyager missions rock on: poster designed to celebrate Voyger’s epic journey carrying with it a golden disc records with the sights, sounds and songs from Earth. Image: Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

This epic mission deserves to win Mission Cup as it has contributed in so many ways to our understanding of how a wide variety of Solar System objects formed and evolved, and it is a technological triumph of 1970s engineering that the spacecraft is still carrying out its mission and exploring new boundaries today. The spacecraft and its dedicated team of ground controllers have pushed the boundaries (literally and figuratively) of planetary science knowledge, and even after the mission formally will come to an end in a few years it will continue its silent scientific journey out into the unknown.  

Further information:

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About Katherine Joy

Hello! I am Katherine Joy. I am part of the University of Manchester Isotope Geochemistry and Cosmochemistry group. More details about my research interests can be found at http://www.seaes.manchester.ac.uk/people/staff/profile/?ea=katherine.joy
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