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By Carolyn Collins Petersen, TheSpacewriter
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Voyager: Exploring the Realm of the Giants

Wednesday, August 9, 2017 21:48
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The Voyager Mission the Voyager spacecraftThe Voyager spacecraft twins are still working and still returning data, 40 years after their launch. Courtesy NASA/JPL-CalTech

I’ve been thinking about the Voyager mission lately. Last week marked the 40th anniversary of the launch of these two hardy spacecraft to explore the gas giants of the solar system. They weren’t the first spacecraft to get “out there”. That honor belongs to the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft who preceded them. Those two explored Jupiter and Saturn, whetting our appetites for more.

The Voyager 2 mission is the first one I ever covered as a science writer, so it holds a very special place in my memories. I flew out to JPL in August of 1981 to watch the images and data come flowing back as the spacecraft whizzed past Saturn. I returned two more times to cover the flybys of Uranus and Neptune in 1986 and 1989, respectively. Those were seminal experiences for me and led me directly back to school to study more science.

Voyager’s Achievements

For the scientists involved, the Voyager mission is their life’s work. The data the spacecraft returned are still contributing to our knowledge of the gas giant planets. These flagship missions inspired others to follow. The Cassini spacecraft is currently ending its mission to Saturn. The Galileo mission went to Jupiter and did in-depth studies there. The New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto broke many records and is well on its way to the next target. Finally, the Juno mission that arrived at Jupiter last year is sending back even better looks at the largest planet and is winding up its last orbits this year. Planetary science has never had it so good, and I hope it gets even better!

Voyager’s Achievements voyager targetsThe planets visited by the Voyager spacecraft; Voyager 1 flew past Jupiter and Saturn; Voyager 2 flew past all four gas giant planets. Courtesy NASA/JPL

Both Voyager spacecraft are still working, still sending back data from just beyond our solar system’s heliospheric boundary. Voyager 1 is the first to actually leave the heliosphere behind and is headed to deep space. Voyager 2 is not far behind. And, incredibly, they’re both still working pretty well and will continue to do so until their energy runs low within the next decade.

Along the way out toward the stars, they showed flew past four gas giants, sending back glorious images of planets, moons, rings, and massive atmospheres. They revealed dozens of new moons and provided incredibly detailed close-up looks at cratered surfaces, turbulent clouds, lightning storms, aurorae, and much more.

Personal Reflections on Voyager

I have to admit that when I first asked if I could go cover the Voyager 2/Saturn flyby for the Denver Post, I was motivated more by the chance to visit the world-famous JPL and hang with scientists than I was by the chance to learn the science. By that, I mean I already knew that there’d be cool science. But, the rare chance to meet and mingle with people such as Carl Sagan and Ed Stone and other Voyager scientists (including a few from Colorado who I knew from my undergraduate days there), was just too much to pass up. And so, off I went and spent several days absolutely immersed in planetary science. I wrote a couple of stories that I had to phone into the copy desk at the paper, and in the process, gained a nickname I still have: Spacewriter. I was also called “The Planet Lady” by the copy desk folk. All because I had the audacity to ask if I could go cover something bigger than anything I’d imagined. And, my editor, an amiable guy named Bob, told me to be good and do good. So, I did. And, I was dazzled by the science, the pictures, the sights and sounds of the flyby, and the absolute dedication of the science teams doing the work.

I’ve been back to JPL many times since then, covering various missions. I’ve also covered a few at the Kennedy Space Center and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (for New Horizons). Make no mistake about it: they’ve all been exciting. Perhaps because it was my first, Voyager 2 at Saturn will always stand out in my mind slightly above the rest — not because the others were bad, but because it opened doors for me. It taught me a lot about the planets, but also about the science teams and the science itself. I’ll always want more.

Want to see more about the Voyage achievements? Check out JPL’s story about this set of missions.

The post Voyager: Exploring the Realm of the Giants appeared first on TheSpacewriter.


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