Voyager 1 is a space probe that was launched by NASA on September 5, 1977. Part of the Voyager program to study the outer Solar System, Voyager 1 was launched 16 days after its twin, Voyager 2. Having operated for 42 years, 8 months and 30 days as of June 4, 2020, the spacecraft still communicates with the Deep Space Network to receive routine commands and to transmit data to Earth. Real-time distance and velocity data is provided by NASA and JPL. At a distance of 148.61 AU (22.2 billion km; 13.8 billion mi) from Earth as of March 12, 2020, it is the most distant human-made object from Earth.
The probe’s objectives included flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, and Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Although the spacecraft’s course could have been altered to include a Pluto encounter by forgoing the Titan flyby, exploration of the moon took priority because it was known to have a substantial atmosphere. Voyager 1 studied the weather, magnetic fields, and rings of the two planets and was the first probe to provide detailed images of their moons.
After completing its primary mission with the flyby of Saturn on November 12, 1980, Voyager 1 became the third of five artificial objects to achieve the escape velocity required to leave the Solar System. On August 25, 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to cross the heliopause and enter the interstellar medium.
In a further testament to the robustness of Voyager 1, the Voyager team completed a successful test of the spacecraft’s trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters in late 2017 (the first time these thrusters were fired since 1980), a project enabling the mission to be extended by two to three years.
Voyager 1‘s extended mission is expected to continue until about 2025 when its radioisotope thermoelectric generators will no longer supply enough electric power to operate any of its scientific instruments.
In the 1960s, a Grand Tour to study the outer planets was proposed which prompted NASA to begin work on a mission in the early 1970s. Information gathered by the Pioneer 10 spacecraft helped Voyager’s engineers design Voyager to cope more effectively with the intense radiation environment around Jupiter. However, shortly before launch, strips of kitchen-grade aluminum foil were applied to certain cabling to further enhance radiation shielding.
Initially, Voyager 1 was planned as “Mariner 11” of the Mariner program. Due to budget cuts, the mission was scaled back to be a flyby of Jupiter and Saturn and renamed the Mariner Jupiter-Saturn probes. As the program progressed, the name was later changed to Voyager, since the probe designs began to differ greatly from previous Mariner missions.
Voyager 1 was constructed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It has 16 hydrazine thrusters, three-axis stabilization gyroscopes, and referencing instruments to keep the probe’s radio antenna pointed toward Earth. Collectively, these instruments are part of the Attitude and Articulation Control Subsystem (AACS), along with redundant units of most instruments and 8 backup thrusters. The spacecraft also included 11 scientific instruments to study celestial objects such as planets as it travels through space.
The radio communication system of Voyager 1 was designed to be used up to and beyond the limits of the Solar System. The communication system includes a 3.7-meter (12 ft) diameter high gain Cassegrain antenna to send and receive radio waves via the three Deep Space Network stations on the Earth. The craft normally transmits data to Earth over Deep Space Network Channel 18, using a frequency of either 2.3 GHz or 8.4 GHz, while signals from Earth to Voyager are transmitted at 2.1 GHz.
When Voyager 1 is unable to communicate directly with the Earth, its digital tape recorder (DTR) can record about 67 megabytes of data for transmission at another time. Signals from Voyager 1 take over 20 hours to reach Earth.