Voyager 1 left the planet 41 years ago – and SpaceX hopes to land on Earth this Saturday

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Voyager mission logo

Yesterday saw the 41st anniversary of Voyager 1’s launch from the Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 41 – and SpaceX fire up its next Falcon 9 at the neighbouring Launch Complex 40 pad.

Launched just after its twin, Voyager 2, the spacecraft was sent on NASA’s Grand Tour of the solar system, scooting past Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1980 before taking a look at the hazy atmosphere of one of Saturn’s moons, Titan.

NASA boffins were very keen to take a closer look at Titan since observations had hinted at an interesting atmosphere surrounding the body. Unfortunately for the probe, thick clouds prevented much in the way of surface observations, but enough data was returned to allow scientists to determine the atmosphere’s composition and speculate that lakes of liquid hydrocarbons might exist on the surface.

The joint NASA and ESA Cassini-Huygens mission would go on take a much closer look at Titan thanks in part to data from the veteran probe.

After its Titan encounter, the probe’s trajectory took it out of the solar system (its sibling, Voyager 2, continued on for encounters with Uranus and Neptune) and NASA began gradually switching off its instruments to preserve power, with the famous Pale Blue Dot image being one of the last pictures taken by the spacecraft’s cameras in 1990.

Voyager 1 is now the most distant object in space made by humans and is hurtling out of the solar system at a speed of around 3.6 AU* per year. The spacecraft is currently 13.3 billion miles (21.4 billion km) from the Earth and boffins reckon it is well into Interstellar space. Thanks in part to working out how to fire up the decades-old thrusters in 2017 to keep the probe’s antenna aligned with earth, NASA reckons it will be possible to eke out enough power from the onboard radioisotope thermoelectric generator to keep at least one of the array of scientific instruments functioning through 2025. Voyager 1 will eventually pass out of the range of NASA’s Deep Space Network in 2036, but will likely be silent by then.

SpaceX fire up another Falcon 9

While the Voyager team were celebrating, SpaceX fired up a fresh Block 5 Falcon 9 prior to a planned launch on 8 September. The infamously tight-lipped company (at least when compared to the torrent of information unloaded by NASA during the shuttle era) tweeted out a short message to indicate that things had gone well enough to allow Musk’s rocketeers to have a crack at lifting the Telstar 18 satellite into orbit on Saturday, 8 September.

The launch, which has suffered a number of delays, will see a repeat of SpaceX’s crowd-pleasing landing attempt: returning the reusable part of the rocket back to Earth. This time the team hopes that hardware, after it has popped the satellite into the heavens, will touch down back on Earth, specifically: onboard SpaceX’s drone ship, which has headed out to sea in preparation for the launch.

Telstar 18 will be flung into an elliptical transfer orbit from where it will head to its geostationary perch, providing C-band and Ku-band services over the Asia-Pacific region. Telstar expect the sat to provide 15 years of service. ®

* An astronomical unit is the mean distance of the Earth to the Sun – which is about 150 million kilometres (93 million miles).




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