[CNI News thanks Skye Turell for forwarding this NASA news release dated February 13, 1998.]
At approximately 5:10 p.m. Eastern time on February 17, Voyager 1, launched more than two decades ago, will cruise beyond the Pioneer 10 spacecraft and become the most distant human-created object in space, at 6.5 billion miles (10.4 billion kilometers) from Earth. The two spacecraft are headed in almost opposite directions away from the Sun.
"Voyager 1 is at the very edge of the Solar System," said Dr. Edward C. Stone, Voyager project scientist and Director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California.
"We can continue to operate at such great distances from the Sun because we have radioisotope thermal electric generators (RTGs) on the spacecraft that create electricity and keep the spacecraft operating," Stone said. "The fact that the spacecraft is still returning data is a remarkable technical achievement."
Voyager 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral on Sept. 5, 1977. The spacecraft encountered Jupiter on March 5, 1979, and Saturn on Nov. 12, 1980. Then, because its trajectory was designed to fly close to Saturn's large moon Titan, Voyager 1's path was bent northward by Saturn's gravity, sending the spacecraft out of the ecliptic plane.
"The Voyager mission today presents an unequalled technical challenge. The spacecraft is now so far from home that it takes nine hours and 36 minutes for a radio signal traveling at the speed of light to reach Earth," said Ed B. Massey, project manager for the Voyager Interstellar Mission at JPL.
Having completed their planetary explorations, Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, are studying the environment of space in the outer Solar System. Although beyond the orbits of all the planets, the spacecraft still are well within the boundary of the Sun's magnetic field, called the heliosphere. Science instruments on both spacecraft sense signals that scientists believe are coming from the outermost edge of the heliosphere, known as the heliopause.
The data coming back from Voyager now suggest that within 10 years or so it should be very close to penetrating the heliopause itself and entering into true interstellar space for the first time.
Both Voyager spacecraft have enough electricity and attitude control propellant to continue operating until about 2020, when electrical power produced by the RTGs will no longer support science instrument operation. At that time, Voyager 1 will be almost 14 billion miles away. Voyager 1 is departing the Solar System at a speed of 39,000 miles per hour, or 17.4 kilometers per second.
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