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Voyager – the journey continues

AFTER 33 YEARS, NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft are still going strong and still sending home information. This video features highlights of the Voyager journeys to the outer planets, and looks at their current status, at the edge of our Solar System, poised to cross over into interstellar space.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL.

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Solar System portrait, inside looking out

MESSENGER “family portrait” of our Solar System

The MESSENGER spacecraft collected a series of images (here split into two halves) to complete a “family portrait” of our Solar System as seen from the inside looking out. All of the planets are visible except for Uranus and Neptune, which at distances of 3.0 and 4.4 billion kilometres were too faint to detect. (Pluto, smaller and even farther away, would have been even more difficult to observe). Earth’s Moon and Jupiter’s Galilean satellites (Callisto, Ganymede, Europa, and Io) can be seen in the image insets. See the link in the main text below for a full-size version of the image.

NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft has captured the first portrait of our Solar System from the inside looking out.

Comprised of 34 images, the mosaic provides a complement to the Solar System portrait—that one from the outside looking in—taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 (see below).

“Obtaining this portrait was a terrific feat by the MESSENGER team,” says MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

“This snapshot of our neighbourhood also reminds us that Earth is a member of a planetary family that was formed by common processes four and a half billion years ago,” he added.

“Our spacecraft is soon to orbit the innermost member of the family, one that holds many new answers to how Earth-like planets are assembled and evolve.”

MESSENGER’s Wide Angle Camera (WAC) captured the images on November 3 and 16, 2010. In the mosaic, all of the planets are visible except for Uranus and Neptune, which—at distances of 3.0 and 4.4 billion kilometres—were too faint to detect.

Earth’s Moon and Jupiter’s Galilean satellites (Callisto, Ganymede, Europa, and Io) can be seen in the NAC image insets. The Solar System’s perch on a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy also afforded a beautiful view of a portion of the galaxy in the bottom centre.

See the full-size image here.

Assembling this portrait was no easy feat, says Solomon. “It’s not easy to find a moment when many of the planets are within a single field of view from that perspective, and we have strong Sun-pointing constraints on our ability to image in some directions.”

Outside looking in

On February 14, 1990, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft had sailed beyond the outermost planet in our Solar System and turned its camera inward to snap a series of final images that would be its parting valentine to the string of planets it called home.

Mercury was too close to the Sun to see, Mars showed only a thin crescent of sunlight, and Pluto was too dim, but Voyager was able to capture cameos of Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Earth and Venus from its unique vantage point. These images, later arranged in a large-scale mosaic, make up the first family portrait of our planets arrayed about the Sun.

Voyager portrait of the Solar System

The cameras of Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990, pointed back toward the Sun and took a series of pictures of the Sun and the planets, making the first ever "portrait" of our Solar System as seen from the outside. See the link in the main text for a full-size version of the image.

See the full-size image here.

Candy Hansen, a planetary scientist based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who worked with the Voyager imaging team at the time, remembers combing through the images and finally finding the image of Earth. She had seen so many pictures over the years that she could distinguish dust on the lens from the black dots imprinted on the lens for geometric correction.

There was our planet, a bright speck sitting in a kind of spotlight of sunlight scattered by the camera. Hansen still gets chills thinking about it.

“I was struck by how special Earth was, as I saw it shining in a ray of sunlight,” she said. “It also made me think about how vulnerable our tiny planet is.”

This was the image that inspired Carl Sagan, the Voyager imaging team member who had suggested taking this portrait, to call our home planet “a pale blue dot.”

Voyager images of six planets

These six narrow-angle colour images were made from the first ever 'portrait' of the Solar System taken by Voyager 1 in 1990, when it was more than 6 billion kilometres from Earth. Left to right and top to bottom are: Venus, Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. The background features in the images are artefacts resulting from the magnification.

As he wrote in a book by that name, “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. … There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) is a NASA-sponsored scientific investigation of the planet Mercury and the first space mission designed to orbit the planet closest to the Sun.

MESSENGER was launched on August 3, 2004, and—having completed flybys of Earth, Venus, and Mercury—will start a yearlong study of its target planet in March 2011.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech. Image credits: (MESSENGER) NASA / JHU APL / Carnegie; (Voyager) NASA / JPL.

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Voyager: the Greatest Journey of Discovery

  • Twin missions visited the outer planets
  • Discovered new moons and planetary rings
  • Voyager 1 is now the farthest manmade object

A “meditation on the nature and meaning of exploration itself, disguised as a chronicle of the life and times of a space mission,” is what the New York Times says of Arizona State University Professor Stephen Pyne’s new book, Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery.

It adds that Pyne’s book takes readers on the roller-coaster ride through time and space, offering “a rich mix of history, science and fine writing. Sometimes it seems as if Captain Cook and Prince Henry the Navigator themselves are aboard the busy spacecraft.”

Cover of Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery

Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery, traces the history and impact of the twin Voyager spacecraft.

The expeditions of the twin Voyager spacecraft, rank among the most amazing achievements of the space age…indeed, among any age. Launched in August and September 1977 respectively, Voyager 2 and Voyager 1 journeyed to the outer reaches of the Solar System. Voyager 1 flew past Jupiter and Saturn; Voyager 2 encountered Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Along the way they discovered numerous new moons, rings around Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io, lightning in Saturn’s atmosphere, as well as many more accomplishments.

Both spacecraft are now way out beyond the edge of the Solar System, slowly drifting through the region where the Sun’s influence ends and true interstellar space begins. In 1998, Voyager 1 overtook Pioneer 10 as the most distant manmade object from Earth—almost 70 times further from the Sun than Earth is.

Today, Voyager 1 is almost 114 times further than the Earth. Voyager 2, travelling in a different direction, is 93 times the Earth-Sun distance.

Voyager: a modern-day Magellan

Why Pyne’s focus on the Voyager mission? While discovery is a uniquely human activity, the Voyager missions stand as iconic testaments, “grand gestures.” Moments of exploring, Pyne says, “that more than any other capture the general imagination, that fuse place, time, discovery and yearning in ways that seem to speak to an era’s sense of itself.”

Artist's impression of Voyager 2 flying past Jupiter

Artist's impression of Voyager 2 flying past Jupiter.

Voyager, he argues, was of the same ilk as Magellan’s journey in the First Age of Discovery and Alexander von Humboldt’s cross-continental trek across South America in the Second Age of Discovery.

Voyager was a defining symbol of the Third Age of Discovery, the exploratory tale of which transcends time and weaves the thread of all human endeavour into the distant future.

Pyne’s work raises “fascinating questions about the human impulses embedded in the space program and about how Voyager’s journey may change our sense of who we are.”

Time Magazine says of Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery, “For space geeks, a sweet read; for everyone else, an eye-opener.”

Pyne is an award-winning environmental historian, and the author of three previous books: “Year of the Fires,” “The Ice,” and “How the Canyon Became Grand.”

You can get more details of Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery at the SpaceInfo shop.

Adapted from information issued by ASU / NASA / Wikipedia.

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