NASA’s Voyager 1 Ready To Leave Solar System 35-Years After Launch

By Amir Khan on September 4, 2012 9:50 AM EDT

Voyager 1
NASA's Voyager 1 lifts off in 1977 (Photo: Creative Commons)

NASA's Voyager 1 departed Earth 3 years ago, and is now ready to make its grand exit from the solar system, the organization said. In the near future, the spacecraft will become the first man-made object to exit the solar system, and enter into new, uncharted territory.

"We're anxious to get outside and find what's out there," Ed Stone, a NASA researcher who has worked on the project since its inception, told the Associated Press.

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NASA launched the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in 1977 as an expedition to study Jupiter and Saturn. They have since become the longest-operating spacecraft in history -- despite being a technological relic. Each spacecraft has 68 kilobytes of memory -- 100,000 times less powerful than an iPod Nano.

What happens when the spacecraft exits the solar system is anyone's guess. Right now, Voyager 1 is 11 million miles from the sun, with Voyager 2 a mere 2 million miles behind that. They are in a turbulent zone at the end of the solar system, which is surrounded by a plasma bubble created by a stream of charged particles from the sun.

NASA scientists expect that the ride will be much smoother once they exit the plasma bubble, but are unsure what they will find.

The original mission sent both Voyagers to Jupiter and Saturn, and they both sent back the first pictures of these planets. Voyager 2 then went by Uranus and Neptune, while Voyager 1 used Saturn as a gravitational slingshot to launch itself into deep space.

The cameras no longer work, and there are no more full-time voyager scientists, but Voyager remains an integral part of NASA's studies. Instead, 20 part-time researchers analyze the radio signals the spacecraft send back, which take approximately 17-hours to reach Earth.

"Time after time, Voyager revealed unexpected - kind of counterintuitive - results, which means we have a lot to learn," Stone said.

But the mission can't last forever. The spacecraft have enough fuel to last until approximately 2020, according to NASA, but scientists hope they will be floating amongst the stars by then.

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