NASA’s Voyager 2 probe is on its way outside the influence of the Sun, and could be close to interstellar space. The US space agency NASA has confirmed that the probe, which launched in 1977, has crossed the Kuiper Belt, and will soon be beyond the range of the Sun’s magnetic field.
Launched two weeks before Voyager 1, that was sent into space on September 5, 1977, and has crossed into interstellar space in 2014, this makes Voyager 2 the second space probe to reach interstellar space.
Here is the journey the probe has capped so far in its tryst with the solar system, and beyond.
NASA Voyager 2: Over 40 years since launch
Voyager 2 was launched on August 21, 1977. It has reached a distance of 11.03 billion miles (17.75 billion kms) away from Earth and 11.04 billion miles (17.77 billion kms) away from Sun. The probe celebrated its 40th anniversary on August 21 last year, and is among the longest-running missions from the US space agency.
Voyager 2 and Voyager 1 have given lasting images of the planets of the Solar system (excluding Mercury and Venus). So far, Voyager 2 has been in space for more than 41 years, one month, and 18 days.
The technology around the Voyager series of probes has led to the introduction of space telescopes, like the Hubble and Kepler telescopes, as well as the James Webb Solar Probe, that was launched in an attempt to understand the composition of the Sun’s outer surface.
NASA Voyager 2: Crossing Solar System’s gas giants
NASA’s Voyager 2 probe is the only man-made probe to have crossed past the solar system’s gas giants: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. This is part of the hyperbolic orbit that was chosen for the Voyager 2 mission.
NASA was able to achieve this, as they scheduled the launch date close to a realignment of the four planets in space. The different orbits means that Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune can only align in space once every 176 years, and the last was in 1976 to 1980.
Voyager 2 was able to use the gravitational pull of all four planets, on its approach toward interstellar space. It flew past Jupiter on July 9, 1979, followed by a Saturn fly-by on August 25, 1981. This was followed by fly-bys past Uranus and Neptune on January 24, 1986, and January 25, 1989, respectively.
NASA Voyager 2: Progress toward interstellar space
The last milestone achieved by Voyager 2 was witnessed on August 30, 2007, as the probe reached the heliosheath. This is the zone outside the Solar system, and the outermost zone of influence of the Sun. Here, the impact of solar winds are lessened by the pressure of gases in interstellar space.
Through the ‘termination shock’, i.e., the impact of space probes moving from one sphere of magnetic radiation into another, Voyager 2 is being checked for data transmissions.
Scientists expect to learn about the impact of radiation from multiple sources through Voyager 2, including the influence of the Kuiper Belt, an interstellar space beyond Pluto, that is also home to many hunks of rock and semi-planetary bodies. So far, Voyager 1 is the only probe to have crossed into interstellar space.
NASA Voyager 2: Golden Record to help interact with aliens
As Voyager missions, including Voyager 2 are seen as a possibility to communicate with other life forms. As part of the mission objective, NASA’s Voyager 2 also contains the Golden Record, which is on the other probes as well. The Golden Record consists of basic information about planet Earth, as well as a basic history of the human race.
The Golden Record includes 115 images, that describe the planet, as well as the origins and nature of the Voyager 2 spacecraft. The human interaction elements also consist of greetings in 55 different language. This is followed by a section on the sounds of Earth, that includes audio of tides, birds, wind and thunder, as well as land-based animals. Finally, the Golden Record holds a 90-minute music section, which plays a combination of Western and Eastern classical tunes.
NASA Voyager 2: Impact on popular culture
Voyager 2 is a very talked-up mission event in terms of popular culture. A model similar to the NASA probe was used to showcase a space rocket in Star Trek: The Movie. Within it, scenes depicting the V’Ger/Voyager 6 show a model very similar to a Voyager 2 prototype designed by NASA.
Voyager was also mentioned in the famous TV show The West Wing. soon after Voyager 1 became the first probe to enter interstellar space.
The Golden Record was also mentioned across science fiction titles like X-Files and Starman. The most recent sourcing of the same was made by The Big Bang Theory, which also quotes the probe soon after its 40th anniversary.
Voyager 2 will continue to be in service until 2020. At this point, NASA has estimated that the probe will not be in a position to maintain regular communication, and its scientific instruments will also not expected to function after the set timeline.