Let's go space truckin': 1970s probe Voyager 1 is now 14 billion miles from home

NASA's long-lived spacecraft reaches another milestone

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NASA's extraordinarily long-lived Voyager 1 probe this week passed 14 billion miles from Earth.

It takes light nearly 21 hours to reach the spacecraft, making commanding the thing increasingly tricky.

Of course, the distance counter can occasionally roll backwards slightly due to the orbit of the Earth around the Sun, but the milestone is an impressive feat nonetheless.

The spacecraft was a mere 3.7 billion miles from Earth when it snapped the iconic Pale Blue Dot image 30 years ago.

At 150.6 Astronomical Units (AU) from Earth and 150.5 AU from the Sun, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) noted this week that the venerable probe is the farthest human-made object from Earth. It is currently travelling at just over 38,000mph (with respect to the Sun).

Dr Garry E Hunt, a member of the original imaging team, paid tribute to the spacecraft's longevity: "It's actually 50 years since I joined JPL and we started talking about these missions, and then we started the feasibility study, which I was involved in and, blimey, it's still going."

Voyager 1 (and its sibling, Voyager 2, which is only 11.6 billion miles from Earth) has continued to cruise serenely through space, despite the disruption back home. Hunt was thrilled the mission was continuing and, noting that improvements to NASA's Deep Space Network should keep communication going, told us: "A lot of the control work is being carried out by people working at home. Not even coronavirus can stop Voyager."

Voyager probe illustration

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Launched within days of each other in 1977, the Voyager probes have endured beyond all reasonable expectations. The 43rd anniversary of Voyager 1's launch recently passed, and it is nearly 40 years since the probe began its interstellar mission, having passed Saturn in 1980.

The Voyagers are not NASA's only veteran spacecraft headed for deep space. The Pioneer 10 and 11 probes were launched a few years earlier for a Jupiter flyby and, in the case of Pioneer 11, an additional encounter with Saturn. The last contact with Pioneer 11 was made in 1995, while a final feeble signal was picked up from Pioneer 10 in 2003.

Voyager, however, continues. Now down to four functioning instruments, Voyager 1 is expected to reach the Oort cloud in approximately 300 years. It fired up its trajectory correction thrusters for the first time in decades in 2017 to keep its antenna pointed toward Earth, adding a few more years to its mission.

The end, alas, is approaching. Over the coming years scientists will be forced to shut down the remaining instruments in order to eke out the probe's diminishing power supply. By 2025, all the science instruments will have been shut down although there is a good chance engineering data will still be transmitted.

The Voyagers could, however, remain within range of the Deep Space Network through 2036 "depending on how much power the spacecraft still have to transmit a signal back to Earth," according to JPL.

Until then, join us in toasting another achievement notched up by NASA's farthest. ®

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