Thousands of years from now, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 will leave our solar system. But their instruments will stop working long before that happens.

Key takeaways

  • Voyager 1 and 2 were launched in 1977 to explore the outer planets and are now heading beyond our solar system.
  • The probes revealed volcanoes on Io, an ocean on Europa, and provided our only close-up views of Uranus and Neptune.
  • Voyager 1 entered interstellar space in 2012, followed by Voyager 2, revealing unexpected solar particle behavior at the heliopause.
  • Despite their age, both probes continue to send back valuable data; NASA hopes to maintain contact until around 2025.
  • Each Voyager carries a golden record with Earth’s sights and sounds, serving as a time capsule for any future finders.

NASA launched the twin Voyager spacecraft in 1977 to explore the solar system’s furthest reaches. At the time, the space agency was in its infancy. But, with the Apollo Moon landings only five years behind them, NASA was poised to delve headfirst into another audacious concept.

Because of a rare alignment of the solar system’s four outer planets, which occurs only once every 175 years, the agency was able to revolutionize astronomy by investigating Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune all at once.

The scheme was a huge success.

Scientists were shocked when the probes uncovered volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io and determined Europa is most likely an ocean world. Saturn gave up its atmospheric composition and new rings. And Voyager 2 returned humanity’s sole close-up views of Uranus and Neptune. Scientists are continually uncovering fresh discoveries by studying Voyager’s decades-old data.

But these probes haven’t ceased exploring the distant solar system. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are still operational today, making them the longest-running and farthest space missions in history. Though they are on distinct paths, both spacecraft are still screaming their way out of the solar system. They still have a long way to go.

Where are the Voyager Probes Going?

Even at 35,000 mph, the Voyager probes will require another 300 years to reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud, a vast sphere of ice space objects that begins several thousand times further away from the Sun than Earth. According to NASA, the outer edge of the Oort Cloud could be so far away that it will take the Voyager probes 30,000 years or more to pass it fully.

Following that, in around 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will be able to approach another star. However, Voyager 2 will have to wait 300,000 years before it can bathe in the light of another star.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait too long for fresh discoveries. Both probes are still making amazing discoveries along the route.

Only the Voyager probes have passed the heliopause, leaving the sun’s influence. New probes may one day study the interstellar medium lying beyond. NASA-JPL/Caltech

What is the Voyager Mission Studying?

In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to reach interstellar space. There are no road signs informing NASA that the craft broke the barrier. Instead, they established it based on observable changes identified by Voyager 1 when it entered a region known as the heliopause.

Our Sun produces a powerful stream of particles known as the solar wind, which travels outward in all directions and provides a magnetic field that protects the planets from interstellar particles. The tremendous wind creates a massive cavity in the interstellar medium (the space between stars) that contains all of the planets. This protective bubble is known as the heliosphere, and the heliopause is its outer border, when our Sun’s influence is eventually eclipsed by distant events such as erupting supernovas.

Scientists were shocked when Voyager 1 examined the magnetic field just within and outside the heliopause and discovered no substantial changes in its overall direction. Then, in 2018, Voyager 2 approached the same interstellar space limit and discovered comparable results.

However, Voyager 2 provided another surprise when NASA scientists announced its first results from beyond the heliopause. They had initially predicted that particles from our sun would not “leak out” of the heliosphere into interstellar space. And Voyager 1 detected no such leaking. But Voyager 2 discovered the contrary. It detected a modest trickle of solar particles passing through the heliopause.

In recent years, the twin probes discovered that the solar wind moves more slowly toward the border of our solar system than expected. Overall, by analyzing data from both spacecraft, astronomers were able to compare, contrast, and corroborate findings about the barrier that divides our solar system from interstellar space.

When Will Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 Die?

NASA has maintained close communication with the Voyager probes since their launch almost 40 years ago. However, The New York Times reported that the space agency has temporarily ceased receiving messages from Voyager 2 while they attempt to repair and replace one of the three Deep Space Network antennas used to connect with the probes.

It’s a hazardous maneuver, and there’s a potential we won’t hear from Voyager 2 when the receivers are turned back on. But Earth remains in communication with Voyager 1. And the discoveries aren’t over yet. Mission planners hope to maintain communication with the spacecraft until they fail or lose power.

Both should be able to keep at least one scientific equipment operational through 2025. Even after that, NASA plans to continue collecting engineering data from the probes until 2035, when their range exceeds that of the Deep Space Network antennas.

Unfortunately, the so-called interstellar mission will be unable to tell us what they see once they reach the stars.

The Voyager golden record (left) is a 12-inch gold-plated copper disc. It’s covered with aluminum and electroplated with an ultra-pure sample of uranium-238. NASA

A Golden Record of the Journey

Of fact, NASA anticipated this day long before the missions were started. Some astronomers couldn’t resist this one-way ticket out of the solar system. Carl Sagan was so taken with the notion that he helped NASA develop a full cultural component for the expedition, lest future aliens — or spacefaring earthlings — discover one of the Voyager probes.

Each spaceship contains a gold record that serves as a time capsule from Earth, with the contents chosen by a committee chaired by Sagan. These messages to the sky include images and sounds from Earth, music from dozens of countries, and greetings in 55 languages from around the world.

So, while we will eventually stop hearing from the Voyager probes, this may not be the last communication they send on their trip to the stars.

“Billions of years from now, our Sun, then a distended red giant star, will have reduced Earth to a charred cinder,” according to Sagan. “But the Voyager record will still be largely intact, in some other remote region of the Milky Way galaxy, preserving a murmur of an ancient civilization that once flourished — perhaps before moving on to greater deeds and other worlds — on the distant planet Earth.”

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