A spacecraft launched in the 1970s, Voyager 1 is still traveling and sending back data today, well beyond the scope of its initial, relatively simplistic mission. Keep reading to find out more about where Voyager 1 is today, what it's teaching us about the universe, and where it's headed in the future:
Launched in 1977, September 5 will mark the 36th anniversary of Voyager 1's launch. That makes it one of the oldest pieces of space technology that is still in contact with Earth.
To put this number in perspective, 11 billion miles is the equivalent of circling the Earth 440,000 times. And yet, in terms of light-years, the unit to measure space that is marked by how far light can travel in a year, V1 hasn't even left the neighborhood. It will take 40,000 years for V1 to reach only two light-years distance from the sun. As large as 11 billion is, space is infinitely bigger.
This speed makes it the fastest space technology we have right now. Even spacecraft that have been launched years later with better technology are slower than V1. How does that work? During its initial years, when V1 was investigating planets, scientists used the large gravitational fields of the planets to help propel V1 even faster — and it's been going steady ever since.
The original intention of V1 and its sister ship Voyager 2 was to investigate Jupiter and Saturn up-close for the first time during a specific time frame when the planets were close together. The mission was a huge success, allowing scientists to learn the makeup of the planets and giving the rest of us gorgeous photos to admire. From there, V1 was launched to study some of the moons up-close, another successful mission that scientists viewed as a bonus. Nobody could have predicted that V1 would still be just as useful and performing missions decades later, but V1 is the gift that keeps on giving.
Though V1's longevity could not have been predicted, scientists did plan for it. When building the spacecraft, they used long-lasting plutonium batteries for fuel, and those batteries are still going strong today. While traveling, V1 has turned off everything but its essential functions, and at this rate, the batteries should last throughout the 2020s. Who knows what discoveries V1 might make in that time!
Its satellites were only supposed to last five years, but NASA is maintaining contact with V1 through the use of radio waves, a system that should be viable well beyond the stretches of our solar system. The only real problem is that it takes 16 hours for the radio waves to reach Earth, a number that is continuously increasing as V1 gets farther and farther away.
V1's current mission is to explore interstellar space, which requires exiting the solar system. In the meantime, scientists are also taking the opportunity to study the edges of our solar system, which have never been seen so closely. However, while everyone agrees is that V1 is definitely near the edge of our solar system, NASA maintains that it has yet to cross the boundary into interstellar space while several other prominent scientists are arguing that it has already crossed over months or even years ago. This debate is the hot-button topic in the world of astrophysics today.
V1 carries an audio-visual recording in the form of a gold-plated record that is meant to be both a message to intelligent life and a symbolic time capsule. The record has greetings in over 55 languages, pictures of Earth's life forms, various scientific knowledge, and recordings of pieces of music and earth sounds, like the sound of waves crashing on the shore.
Eons after humans have gone extinct and well after the sun expands to swallow Earth entirely, V1 will still be traversing the universe, silently charting entirely unknown territories.