moon voyage

Planets: As Seen by Voyager

The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft explored Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune before starting their journey toward interstellar space. Here you’ll find some of those images, including “The Pale Blue Dot” – famously described by Carl Sagan – and what are still the only up-close images of Uranus and Neptune.

These twin spacecraft took some of the very first close-up images of these planets and paved the way for future planetary missions to return, like the Juno spacecraft at Jupiter, Cassini at Saturn and New Horizons at Pluto.

Jupiter

Photography of Jupiter began in January 1979, when images of the brightly banded planet already exceeded the best taken from Earth. They took more than 33,000 pictures of Jupiter and its five major satellites. 

Findings:

  • Erupting volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io, which has 100 times the volcanic activity of Earth. 
  • Better understanding of important physical, geological, and atmospheric processes happening in the planet, its satellites and magnetosphere.
  • Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere with dozens of interacting hurricane-like storm systems.

Saturn

The Saturn encounters occurred nine months apart, in November 1980 and August 1981. The two encounters increased our knowledge and altered our understanding of Saturn. The extended, close-range observations provided high-resolution data far different from the picture assembled during centuries of Earth-based studies.

Findings:

  • Saturn’s atmosphere is almost entirely hydrogen and helium.
  • Subdued contrasts and color differences on Saturn could be a result of more horizontal mixing or less production of localized colors than in Jupiter’s atmosphere.
  • An indication of an ocean beneath the cracked, icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa. 
  • Winds blow at high speeds in Saturn. Near the equator, the Voyagers measured winds about 1,100 miles an hour.

Uranus

The Voyager 2 spacecraft flew closely past distant Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun. At its closest, the spacecraft came within 50,600 miles of Uranus’s cloud tops on Jan. 24, 1986. Voyager 2 radioed thousands of images and voluminous amounts of other scientific data on the planet, its moons, rings, atmosphere, interior and the magnetic environment surrounding Uranus.

Findings:

  • Revealed complex surfaces indicative of varying geologic pasts.
  • Detected 11 previously unseen moons.
  • Uncovered the fine detail of the previously known rings and two newly detected rings.
  • Showed that the planet’s rate of rotation is 17 hours, 14 minutes.
  • Found that the planet’s magnetic field is both large and unusual.
  • Determined that the temperature of the equatorial region, which receives less sunlight over a Uranian year, is nevertheless about the same as that at the poles.

Neptune

Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to observe the planet Neptune in the summer of 1989. Passing about 3,000 miles above Neptune’s north pole, Voyager 2 made its closest approach to any planet since leaving Earth 12 years ago. Five hours later, Voyager 2 passed about 25,000 miles from Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, the last solid body the spacecraft had the opportunity to study.

Findings: 

  • Discovered Neptune’s Great Dark Spot
  • Found that the planet has strong winds, around 1,000 miles per hour
  • Saw geysers erupting from the polar cap on Neptune’s moon Triton at -390 degrees Fahrenheit

Solar System Portrait

This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed ‘Pale Blue Dot’, is a part of the first ever ‘portrait’ of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. 

The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic.

From Voyager’s great distance, Earth is a mere point of light, less than the size of a picture element even in the narrow-angle camera.

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” - Carl Sagan

Both spacecraft will continue to study ultraviolet sources among the stars, and their fields and particles detectors will continue to search for the boundary between the Sun’s influence and interstellar space. The radioisotope power systems will likely provide enough power for science to continue through 2025, and possibly support engineering data return through the mid-2030s. After that, the two Voyagers will continue to orbit the center of the Milky Way.

Learn more about the Voyager spacecraft HERE.

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Solar System: Things to Know This Week

With only four months left in the mission, Cassini is busy at Saturn. The upcoming cargo launch, anniversaries and more!

As our Cassini spacecraft made its first-ever dive through the gap between Saturn and its rings on April 26, 2017, one of its imaging cameras took a series of rapid-fire images that were used to make this movie sequence. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Hampton University

1-3. The Grand Finale

Our Cassini spacecraft has begun its final mission at Saturn. Some dates to note:

  • May 28, 2017: Cassini makes its riskiest ring crossing as it ventures deeper into Saturn’s innermost ring (D ring).
  • June 29, 2017: On this day in 2004, the Cassini orbiter and its travel companion the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe arrived at Saturn.
  • September 15, 2017: In a final, spectacular dive, Cassini will plunge into Saturn - beaming science data about Saturn’s atmosphere back to Earth to the last second. It’s all over at 5:08 a.m. PDT.

4. Cargo Launch to the International Space Station

June 1, 2017: Target date of the cargo launch. The uncrewed Dragon spacecraft will launch on a Falcon 9 from Launch Complex 39A at our Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The payload includes NICER, an instrument to measure neutron stars, and ROSA, a Roll-Out Solar Array that will test a new solar panel that rolls open in space like a party favor.

5. Sojourner

July 4, 2017: Twenty years ago, a wagon-sized rover named Sojourner blazed the trail for future Mars explorers - both robots and, one day, humans. Take a trip back in time to the vintage Mars Pathfinder websites:

6. Voyager

August 20, 2017: Forty years and still going strong, our twin Voyagers mark 40 years since they left Earth.

7. Total Solar Eclipse

August 21, 2017: All of North America will be treated to a rare celestial event: a total solar eclipse. The path of totality runs from Oregon to South Carolina.

8. From Science Fiction to Science Fact

Light a candle for the man who took rocketry from science fiction to science fact. On this day in 1882, Robert H. Goddard was born in Worcester, Massachusetts.

9. Looking at the Moon

October 28, 2017: Howl (or look) at the moon with the rest of the world. It’s time for the annual International Observe the Moon Night.

10. Last Human on the Moon

December 13, 2017: Forty-five years ago, Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan left the last human footprint on the moon.

Discover more lists of 10 things to know about our solar system HERE.

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The Voyager Golden Records are phonograph records that were included aboard both Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. They contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or for future humans, who may find them. Neither Voyager spacecraft is heading toward any particular star, but Voyager 1 will pass within 1.6 light-years of the star Gliese 445, currently in the constellation Camelopardalis, in about 40,000 years. 

The Voyager Golden Record contains 115 images plus a calibration image and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind, and thunder, and animal sounds, including the songs of birds and whales. The record additionally features musical selections from different cultures and eras, spoken greetings in fifty-nine languages, and printed messages from President Jimmy Carter and U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. The items were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University.