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Voyager Spacecraft: 40 Years of Solar System Discoveries
by Staff Writers
Boulder CO (SPX) Sep 04, 2017

Rendering of the Voyager spacecraft and its Golden Records.

In 1977, two NASA space probes destined to forever upend our view of the solar system launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The identical spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, took off in August and September 40 years ago and were programmed to pass by Jupiter and Saturn on different paths. Voyager 2 went on to visit Uranus and Neptune, completing NASA's "Grand Tour of the Solar System," perhaps the most exhilarating interplanetary mission ever flown.

University of Colorado Boulder scientists, who designed and built identical instruments for Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, were as stunned as anyone when the spacecraft began sending back data to Earth.

The discoveries dazzled scientists and the public: Twenty-three new planetary moons at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune; active volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io; Jupiter's ring system; organic smog shrouding Saturn's moon Titan; the braided, intertwined structure of Saturn's rings; the solar system's fastest winds (on Neptune, about 1,200 mph); and nitrogen geysers spewing from Neptune's moon Triton.

"This was a really big deal," said Professor Fran Bagenal of CU Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), a mission scientist who began working with Voyager data as a doctoral student at MIT. "The outer solar system went from being fuzzy planets with dots for moons to a whole set of new and amazing worlds."

Forty years later, the two spacecraft are still traveling - about a million miles per day. Although both are still in contact with scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which is managing the mission for NASA, Voyager 1 is roughly 13 billion miles away and has punched its way into interstellar space. Voyager 2 is not far behind, but on a different trajectory that will soon take it out of the cosmic neighborhood.

The LASP photopolarimeter subsystem, a telescope that measured the intensity and polarization of light at different wavelengths, helped scientists distinguish between rock, dust, frost, ice and meteor material. It also observed the structure of Jupiter's Great Red Spot and the properties of the clouds and atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

"Voyager was nothing less than spectacular," says LASP Professor Larry Esposito, whose team also used the photopolarimeter to watch stars dip behind the rings of Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. "We were able to compare the rings of all the giant planets, looking at the structure and dynamic behavior."

One of the intriguing discoveries involving the Voyager science team was the intricate structure of Saturn's F ring - a ring Esposito discovered in 1979 using data from NASA's Pioneer 11 mission. Scientists determined the faint F ring was made up of three separate ringlets that appeared to be braided together, and that the inner and outer limits of the ring were controlled by two small moons called "shepherd satellites," said Esposito, who chaired the Voyager Rings Science Working Group from 1984 to 1989.

Charlie Hord, a former planetary scientist at LASP, remembers the heyday of Voyager. Hord, principal investigator for a time on the Voyager spacecraft LASP instruments, shook his head in wonder as he recalled some of the discoveries.

"All of the scientists were dazzled by the pictures of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn coming back," said Hord, 79, who still lives in Boulder. "To finally look at them up close was the most remarkable thing I've ever seen in my life."

On the off chance either spacecraft encounters a another civilization, each is carrying what are known as the "Golden Records" - gold-plated copper phonograph records with greetings in 54 languages; the sounds of surf, wind, thunder, birds and whales; analog photos of people and places on Earth; diagrams of DNA; and snippets of music ranging from Bach and Beethoven to Chuck Berry.

The spacecraft carries a stylus set up in the correct position so that aliens could immediately play the record, named "Murmurs from Earth" by the late Carl Sagan, who conceived the Golden Record effort.

A PBS special, titled The Farthest: Voyager in Space, first aired on public television Aug. 23 and will air again Sept. 13.

Forty years on, Voyager still hurtles through space
Miami (AFP) Aug 27, 2017
Are we alone? Forty years ago, NASA rocket scientists sought to answer this question by launching the Voyager spacecraft, twin unmanned spaceships that would travel further than any human-made object in history. They are still traveling. When Voyager 1 and 2 launched about two weeks apart in 1977 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, scientists knew little about the outer planets in our sol ... read more

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