September 5 – Out of sight!

Today’s factismal: Voyager 1 was launched after Voyager 2.

You’d think that with all the smart people at NASA, they’d be able to get something as simple as naming a spacecraft right. And yet, they named the first spacecraft that took off for the outer Solar System “Voyager 2” (launched on August 20, 1977) and the second spacecraft “Voyager 1” (launched on September 5, 1977). But it turns out that there is a method to their madness; the probes were named for the order in which they would reach the planet Jupiter!

The Voyager 1 spacecraft (Image courtesy NASA)

The Voyager 1 spacecraft
(Image courtesy NASA)

You see, the Voyager program began as a “grand tour” of the Solar System. In the original plan, the probe would fly by all of the outer planets from Jupiter to Pluto. Unfortunately, just like a college sophomore who has to cut back his trip after his wallet is stolen, budget cuts at NASA meant paring back the probe design and the grand tour. Instead of two probes hitting all five planets, we had to settle for one probe that would visit Jupiter and Saturn (Voyager 1) and another probe that would visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune (Voyager 2). Poor Pluto would be left out in the cold until the launch of the New Horizons mission in 2006!

The path that the Voyager probes took (Image courtesy NASA)

The path that the Voyager probes took
(Image courtesy NASA)

Both missions went amazingly well, and we learned fantastic new things about all of the planets that they visited. We discovered rings around Jupiter and Neptune and Uranus, and the Solar System’s fastest cloud, and icy volcanoes on Triton. But even after the Voyager probes left the planets, they continued to do science. Right now, they are being used to map the edges of the Sun’s solar wind (what some astronomers refer to as the edge of the Solar System). Soon they will be surrounded by gas from interstellar space!

One of Voyager's more amazing discoveries - giant chevrons on Miranda (Image courtesy NASA)

One of Voyager’s more amazing discoveries – giant chevrons on Miranda
(Image courtesy NASA)

But the coolest part of the Voyager missions (and of most NASA missions) is that they make the data available for free to anyone who wants to use it. If you’d like to take a look at NASA data, then head over to My NASA Data and see what they have to offer!
http://mynasadata.larc.nasa.gov/

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