Voyager Spacecraft Still Reaching for the
Stars and Setting Records After 40 Years
umanity's farthest and longest-lived spacecraft， Voyager 1 and 2， achieve 40 years of operation and exploration this August and September. Despite their vast distance， they continue to communicate with NASA daily， still probing the final frontier.
Their story has not only impacted generations of current and future scientists and engineers， but also Earth's culture， including film， art and music. Each spacecraft carries a Golden Record of Earth sounds， pictures and messages. Since the spacecraft could last billions of years， these circular time capsules could one day be the only traces of human civilization
“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 （SMD） at NASA Headquarters. “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 Voyagers have set numerous records in their unparalleled journeys. In 2012， Voyager 1， which launched on Sept. 5， 1977， became the only spacecraft to have entered interstellar space. Voyager 2， launched on Aug. 20， 1977， is the only spacecraft to have flown by all four outer planets—Jupiter， Saturn， Uranus and Neptune. Their numerous planetary encounters include discovering the first active volcanoes beyond Earth， on Jupiter's moon Io; hints of a subsurface ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa; the most Earth-like atmosphere in the solar system， on Saturn's moon Titan; the jumbled-up， icy moon Miranda at Uranus; and icy-cold geysers on Neptune's moon Triton.
Though the spacecraft have left the planets far behind—and neither will come remotely close to another star for 40，000 years—the two probes still send back observations about conditions where our Sun's influence diminishes and interstellar space begins.
The twin Voyagers have been cosmic overachievers， thanks to the foresight of mission designers. By preparing for the radiation environment at Jupiter， the harshest of all planets in our solar system， the spacecraft were well equipped for their subsequent journeys. Both Voyagers carry redundant systems that allow the spacecraft to switch to backup systems autonomously when necessary， as well as long-lasting power supplies. Each Voyager has three radioisotope thermoelectric generators， devices that use the heat energy generated from the decay of plutonium-238—only half of it will be gone after 88 years.
Space is almost empty， so the Voyagers are not at a significant level of risk of bombardment by large objects. However， Voyager 1's interstellar space environment is not a complete void. It's filled with clouds of dilute material remaining from stars that exploded as supernovae millions of years ago. This material doesn't pose a danger to the spacecraft， but is a key part of the environment that the Voyager mission is helping scientists study and characterize.
Because the Voyagers' power decreases by four watts per year， engineers are learning how to operate the spacecraft under ever-tighter power constraints. And to maximize the Voyagers' lifespans， they also have to consult documents written decade's earlier describing commands and software， in addition to the expertise of former Voyager engineers.
“The technology is many generations old， and it takes someone with 1970s design experience to understand how the spacecraft operate and what updates can be made to permit them to continue operating today and into the future，” said Suzanne Dodd， Voyager project manager based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Team members estimate they will have to turn off the last science instrument by 2030. However， even after the spacecraft go silent， they'll continue on their trajectories at their present speed of more than 30，000 mph， completing an orbit within the Milky Way every 225 million years.