Wednesday, January 4, 2023


Since the launch of Pioneer 10 in 1972, humans have launched 5 spacecrafts that have either reached the edge of the Solar System or fast approaching it. These five spacecrafts are Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, and New Horizons. Original mission of these spacecrafts was to study the neighbouring planets, but most of them have defied there anticipated deaths and are still going strong.

 Four of them have already crossed the edge of the Solar System while the New Horizons, the youngest sibling of them all is expected to cross the heliopause in 2040. All these spacecrafts include cosmic traces of the humanity, including biological diagrams of humans, distinct voices, and Earth’s location in the Milkyway. Here are the details of all these spacecrafts, their launch, trajectory and locations:

Pioneer 10:

Pioneer 10 was the first spacecraft launched by NASA to study the outer space. Originally launched to study Jupiter, Pioneer 10 was a spectacular successes and functioned much longer than it was originally expected. Pioneer 10 was launched on March 02, 1972 for a Jupiter flyby. It was a 21-month mission which ultimately lasted for more than 30 years. Pioneer 10 approached closest to Jupiter on December 04, 1973. It reached a maximum escape velocity of 32,110 miles per hour which was unprecedented. During its flyby, the spacecraft took about 500 pictures of Jupiter, clearly revealing many landmarks as the Great Red Spot. Pioneer 10 remained the farthest man-made object until The last signal from Pioneer 10 was received on Earth on January 23, 2003 from a distance of 7.6 billion miles (12.23 billion kilometers). As per laws of Physics, once a spacecraft is set on a trajectory out of the Solar System, it won’t stop until something changes its course. The spacecraft was heading towards the red star Aldebaran, which it is expected to pass in about two million years.

Pioneer was the first spacecraft launched to probe the neighbouring planets.

Pioneer 11:

A sister spacecraft to Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11 was the first spacecraft to fly by Saturn. It was launched on April 6, 1973, 13 months after the launch of Pioneer 10. During its fly by of Saturn, Pioneer 11 approached as close as 13,000 miles to Saturn and took 440 images of Saturn and its moons. The spacecraft attained the top speed of 106,000 miles (170,000 kilometers per hour) which was more than 3 times the speed of it predecessor, Pioneer 10. Pioneer 11 crossed the orbit of Neptune on Feb 23, 1990, becoming the fourth spacecraft to achieve the feat after Pioneer 10, Voyager 1, and Voyager 2. Pioneer 11 sent its last signals to Earth on November 24, 1995, 22 years after its launch when it was headed out of the Solar system. Pioneer 11’s trajectory would make it reach the star Lambda Aquilla in nearly four million years.

An artist's concept of Pioneer 11.

NASA's Pioneer 11's path through Saturn's outer rings took it within 13,000 miles (21,000 kilometers) of the planet. Credit: NASA Ames

Voyager 1:

Voyager 1 is the farthest man-made object till date. Launched on September 5, 1977 for a fly-by of Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 1 became the farthest man-made object on February 17, 1998 when it overtook Pioneer 10. Voyager 1 was actually launched after Voyager 2, but because of its faster route, it crossed the asteroid belt before Voyager 2. Voyager 1 flew past Jupiter on March 5, 1979 and past Saturn on November 12, 1980. On February 14, 1990, Voyager 1’s cameras were pointed backwards and it took about 60 photos of the Sun and planets. All the planets of the Solar System were captured in these picture except Mercury and Mars. Mercury was too close to the Sun to be seen while Mars was on the same side of the Sun as Voyager 1 was, so it’s dark side was facing the spacecraft. These pictures are called the “Solar System Family Portrait”. Voyager 1 officially became the first spacecraft to enter the interstellar space in August, 2012. More than 45 years since its launch, Voyager 1 is still collecting data and sending it back to Earth. Such is the distance between Earth and Voyager 1 now that it takes almost two days for the scientists to send a signal to Voyager 1 and receive the response. Voyager 1 would remain within the confines of the Solar System, the Oort Cloud, for another 20,000 to 30,000 years.

Voyager 1 completed its Jupiter encounter in early April, after taking almost 19,000 pictures and many other scientific measurements

Voyager 2:

Though name as the successor of Voyager 1, Voyager 2 was actually 16 days before the Voyager 1, on August 20, 1977. Hence, it is the longest functional spacecraft. After close encounters with Jupiter and Saturn, where it took thousands of clear pictures of the two gas giants and their moons, Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to fly-by Uranus on January 24, 1986 as Voyager 1 was not headed towards Uranus and Neptune. It approached closest to Uranus on January 24, 1986 at a range of 50,640 miles. During it Uranus fly-by, Voyager 2 discovered 12 new moons. Subsequently, Voyager 2 flew past Neptune on August 25, 1989 about 2,580 miles above the cloud tops of the planet. Voyager 2 crossed the heliopause earlier than Pioneer 10. In December, 2018, Voyager 2 became the second spacecraft after Voyager 1 to enter in the interstellar space.

Voyager 2 was launched on Aug. 20, 1977, about two weeks before the launch of Voyager 1. The two were sent on different trajectories, and Voyager 1 was put on a path to reach its planetary targets, Jupiter and Saturn, ahead of Voyager 2. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

New Horizons:

The youngest of the five groundbreaking missions headed towards the outer space, New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006. Primary mission of this spacecraft was to study the dwarf planet Pluto. After flying close past Jupiter, New Horizons it completed its famous fly-by of Pluto in 2015. During the Pluto fly-by, it took hundreds of pictures of the dwarf planet. The data received from the spacecraft confirmed the diameter of Pluto at about 1,470 miles (2,370 kilometers) which was slightly larger than the previous estimates, while Pluto’s moon Charon was confirmed to be 750 miles (1208 kilometers) in diameter. New Horizons flew about 4,800 miles above the surface of Pluto on July 14, 2015. After Pluto fly-by, the spacecraft sped its way out of the Solar System. As estimated, it would reach heliopause by 2040.

This enhanced colour image of north polar area of Pluto captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft tells another story of Pluto's diversity of geological and compositional features -- NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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