The images of those planets and their moons, now taken for granted, were stunning triumphs of the Voyager mission. And in 1990, Voyager 1 , nearly 4 billion miles from the sun, turned its camera toward Earth and took an image of what Carl Sagan called the “pale blue dot” of our home planet.
Now Voyager 1 is 124 astronomical units from the sun — one AU being roughly the mean distance from Earth to the sun, or about 93 million miles. Voyager 2 is at 102 AU.
Voyager I continues its exploration of the distant solar system.
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These spacecraft are not immortal, even if sometimes they act like it. They have a power supply from the radioactive decay of plutonium-238, which generates heat. The half-life of that system is 88 years. Small thrusters occasionally are fired to keep Voyager 1’s 23-watt radio antenna pointed toward Earth, where the faint signals are picked up on huge arrays of radio telescopes in the United States, Spain and Australia. But Stone anticipates that weakening power will force scientists to start shutting down scientific instruments on Voyager 1 in 2020 and that by 2025, the last instrument will be turned off.
“It changed the way we view our place in the cosmos,” said Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” who is chief executive of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif. He said the new discovery by Voyager 1 is a classic example of why we explore: “What are you going to find over the unknown horizon? We don’t know. That why we explore out there.”
NASA’s associate administrator for space technology, Michael Gazarik, said of Voyager 1’s durability: “It is amazing, especially in the harsh environment of space. This piece of hardware has a life of its own.”
In 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will be closer to another star (with the romantic name AC+79 3888) than to the sun. And then what? It will just keep going — a silent, dark craft on a seemingly eternal journey.
“It will be orbiting the center of the Milky Way galaxy essentially for billions of years, like all the stars,” said Stone of what has been, for him, the spacecraft of a lifetime.