Voyager 40th anniversary

SPIE Classics celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Voyager space probes.

21 August 2017
Karen Thomas

On 20 August 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 2 space probe. The probe's twin, Voyager 1, was launched 16 days later on 5 September. After 40 years, both pioneering vessels are still operating, sending back data, and heading out of our solar system to points beyond the distance covered by any spacecraft ever launched.

The Voyager probes changed our understanding of the solar system and inspired a surge in spacecraft communications.

"I believe that few missions can ever match the achievements of the Voyager spacecraft during their four decades of exploration," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in a recent article from JPL/NASA. "They have educated us to the unknown wonders of the universe and truly inspired humanity to continue to explore our solar system and beyond."

The primary mission the Voyager program was the exploration of Jupiter and Saturn. After making several discoveries there - such as active volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io and the intricacies of Saturn's rings - the mission was extended.

Voyager 2 has gone on to explore Uranus and Neptune, and to this date is the only spacecraft to have visited those planets. The probes' current mission, the Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM), will explore the outermost edge of the Sun's region and possibly beyond.

Image of Voyager 1

Artist's impression of Voyager 1. Credit: NASA/JPL

Both probes carry a "Golden Record," a collection of 115 images and a variety of natural Earth sounds such as ocean surf, wind, thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. Musical selections from different cultures and eras are included along with spoken greetings in 55 languages. The records carry the inscription "To the makers of music - all worlds, all times" hand-etched on the surface.

Each record is encased in a protective aluminum jacket, together with a cartridge and needle. Instructions in symbolic language explain the origin of the spacecraft and indicate how the record can be played. The images are encoded in analog form.

The contents were selected for NASA by Carl Sagan (Cornell University) and several associates. About the recordings, Sagan stated, "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space."

The Golden Record cover shown with its extraterrestrial instructions.

The Golden Record cover shown with its extraterrestrial instructions. Credit: NASA/JPL

Find more information about the Voyager probes' optics and sensing technologies in the SPIE Digital Library, SPIE Newsroom, and SPIE Professional magazine.

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