Today in Technology History

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September 5

Two weeks ago, we wrote about the launch of the Voyager 2 space probe on its 25th anniversary. Today, as promised, we discuss Voyager 1, which was launched on September 5, 1977.

Why was it called "Voyager 1" if it was launched second? The two Voyagers had different flight plans and the probe launched second actually had a faster trajectory. Thus, even though it left Earth sixteen days after its twin, Voyager 1 reached Jupiter four months before Voyager 2. The same thing happened a year later: Voyager 1 reached Saturn nine months before Voyager 2.

Artist's rendition of the location of the Voyager probes. (Click to enlarge.)But unlike Voyager 2, which went on to visit Uranus and Neptune, Voyager 1 didn't explore any other planets. Instead, it kept racing out into space. In 1998, Voyager 1 became the most distant man-made object from our Sun, surpassing the distance of Pioneer 10, a probe that had a head start of five years.

Today, the two Voyager probes are the first- and third-most distant man-made objects, 7.9 billion and 6.3 billion miles away, respectively. (Pioneer 10 is still in second place, at 7.5 billion miles. All three spacecraft are much more distant than Pluto, the ninth planet.) The two Voyagers aren't traveling in the same direction: one is headed above the planetary plane, the other is headed below. They will continue indefinitely to hurtle into the unknown.

And, remarkably, they're still transmitting scientific data back to Earth. Hopefully, before the year 2020 -- when the Voyagers are expected to run out of power -- they will be able to send back data about the "termination shock," "heliopause" and "bow shock" phenomena that mark the final boundaries between our solar system and the vastness of interstellar space.

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