Voyager 1 enters interstellar space - an incredible journey

The Voyager 1 spacecraft has been cruising along for more than 36 years and just earned its greatest achievement by being the first human-made object to break into interstellar space. Here's a look at its entire trip.
By Andy Smith, Associate Editor on
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Voyager 1

Space pioneer Voyager 1 has gone where no man-made object has gone before. The tiny spacecraft continues on its 36-year mission, 12 billion miles from Earth, traveling into interstellar space - outside of our solar system.

Interstellar space is the area between stars and contains plasma that originated from the death of nearby stars millions of years ago. Voyager is now encountering solar wind which is plasma that originated from our sun. For example, a coronal mass ejection from the sun in March, 2012 reached Voyager in April, 2013 and its effect allowed scientists to determine that Voyager had crossed the threshold of interstellar space.

"Now that we have new, key data, we believe this is mankind's first encounter into interstellar space," said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. "We literally jumped out of our seats when we saw these oscillations in our data."

This gallery, which was last updated in June 2013, contains the most incredible images from Voyager 1 and it's twin, Voyager 2 -  from the launch in 1977 to their encounter with the giant planets of our solar system. Voyager 2 is also keeping communication with Earth and is about 15 billion miles away.

Both spacecraft send signals on a daily basis at about 23 watts or the power needed by a refrigerator light bulb. By the time the signals, traveling at the speed of light,  get to Earth 17 hours later, they are a fraction of a billion-billionth of a watt. Here's what Voyager information sounds like.

The image above is most likely what Voyager 1 looks like.

 Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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This image shows the path taken by Voyager 1. While in the heliosphere which is the edge of a bubble around our solar system it was boosted by solar winds that travel at "supersonic speeds until [they cross] a shockwave called the termination shock," according to NASA. This is the dark blue area that Voyager 1 entered in December 2004.

The heliosheath (gray) is where the solar wind slows down and heats up. When Voyager 1 passed this area, it encountered interstellar winds, indicating it left the solar system. The area where the interstellar wind meets the heliosphere is called a bowshock and is indicated by the yellow area.



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Here's a look at human-made spacecraft and their relative distance from the sun in 2011: Voyager 1 — 10.9 billion miles; Pioneer 10 — 9.6 billion miles; Voyager 2 — 8.8 billion miles; and Pioneer 11 — 7.8 billion miles. This map also shows the New Horizons spacecraft, which is about 2 billion miles from Earth, and on its way to Pluto.

As we indicated Voyager 1 is now about 16 billion miles from Earth while Voyager 2 is about 15 billion miles from Earth.

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Bon voyage. The launch of Voyager 1.

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First stop, Jupiter.

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This was the closest view of the old and massive storm that gives Jupiter its trademark, the Great Red Spot. This is not a storm as we know it on Earth; it has been raging on Jupiter for at least 400 years when humans first observed the giant planet. Three Earths can fit into the storm, which is similar to a hurricane. The Voyagers discovered many hurricane-like storm systems rampaging in Jupiter's atmosphere.

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The biggest surprise that Voyager sent home was the discovery of active volcanos on the moon Io.

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Here's another look at the volcanic activity on Io.

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An Io volcano from above.

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Voyager snapped an image of a ring around Jupiter.

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The lines that cross Jupiter's moon Europa were first seen by earlier space probes, but showed that Europa's features were so flat, they "might have been painted on with a felt marker," according to a scientist. It is believed that the planet's surface may be covered by a water ice crust of up to three miles — hiding oceans as deep as 30 miles.

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Next stop, Saturn. The Voyagers added to our knowledge of Saturn's moons and signature rings.

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This Voyager 1 photo from 1980 showed the fuzzy layer of atmosphere on Saturn's moon, Titan. The Titan findings of the Voyagers helped draw enough interest to send the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn and land a probe on Titan. Cassini is still orbiting Saturn and returning images.

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The Voyagers discovered new information about the rings that revolve around Saturn, in particular the twisted F-Ring. One discovery was how the nearby moons affect the structure of the rings.

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In January 1986, Voyager 2 was the first human-made visitor to Uranus. Left is a true-color view of the planet and a false color view is right.

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Some of the most interesting Voyager discoveries were from the many moons orbiting the giant gas planets. One of them is Miranda, the innermost of Uranus's large moons. Miranda is about 22,000 miles away from Voyager 2 in this photograph.

This clear-filter, narrow-angle image shows an area about 150 miles across. Two distinct terrain types are visible: a rugged, mountainous region (right) and a lower, striated terrain (left). Craters on the higher terrain show that it is older than the lower terrain. The crater in the lower part of this image is about 15 miles across.

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Here's a closer look at Miranda.

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This view of the rings around Uranus shows fine particles throughout the system.

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Voyager 2 was Earth's first visitor to Neptune and its Great Dark Spot.

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The largest storm on Uranus was named the "Great Dark Spot." It is a storm that's similar to Jupiter's Great Red Spot, including its geographic location on the planet. It has winds up to 1,000 miles an hour.

Astronomers could not locate this storm with the Hubble telescope after it was re-calibrated in 1994.

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Voyager returned these images of Neptune's rings.

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Triton is the largest moon orbiting Neptune. According to readings from Voyager, the moon most likely did not originate from Neptune but was a lost mass that was captured by the huge planet's gravitational force. It's moving in a retrograde orbit, which means it spins in the opposite direction of the planet's rotation.

Triton is about three-fourths the size of the Earth's moon. It also has about the same size, density, temperature and chemical composition as Pluto.

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The most interesting discovery on Triton's surface was the presence of geyser-like volcanic vents (the black spots) that were apparently spewing nitrogen gas along with fine, dark particles. The Triton dust rose up to five miles high before descending back to the moon's surface. Triton also has a very thin atmosphere.

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As Voyager 1 sped toward the edge of our solar system, it took one last photo that included the blue dot called Earth.

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In the event that the Voyagers would make the first encounter with an extraterrestrial being, NASA decided to send a "Golden Record" time capsule, or explanation of where Voyager came from and what our planet is like. Here's the gold-plated record they sent and instructions for how to use it. I guess today we'd send an iPhone and expect the aliens to text us back.

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Carl Sagan, the most-recognized astronomer of the 1970s, produced the record. Here is Earth, which is labeled by the contents of our atmosphere.

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Some of the scenes of Earth cities are quite dated and could give aliens the wrong impression of life on Earth today. The Golden Record contains photos, audio and video of nature, everyday life and our achievements to give an idea of what our planet was like in 1977. At this time, Earthlings lived without PCs and smartphones. Plus, their televisions grew these funny antenae without HD. Wow.

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Those of you who were able to watch the whole movie, Star Trek 1, know what will happen to Voyager after it moves into interstellar space.

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