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Thirty-five years after launch, Voyager 1 set to exit solar system

Now some 11 billion miles from the sun, Voyager 1 is approaching interstellar space.

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Artist's concept of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 at the edge of the solar system.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

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How long does it take to fly to the edge of the solar system? At least 35 years. Voyager 1 is there now, carrying 1970s-era technology that might make your jaw sag — computers with 8,000 words of memory and 8-track tape recorders.

Those of us who can remember popping the Allman Brothers into the 8-track tape deck can identify with Voyagers 1 and 2 — a couple of nearly old fogies. But these NASA stalwarts are set to make space history. Again.

Wednesday marks the 35th anniversary of Voyager 1’s launch to Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 marked its 35th anniversary on Aug. 20.

“They were the first fully automated spacecraft that could fly themselves,” Ed Stone, chief Voyager project scientist, told the Los Angeles Times in an interview Tuesday. “They were the peak of technology.”

Now the Voyagers are on their way to becoming the first human-made objects ever to enter interstellar space — that yawning black gap between the stars.

Since its launch, Voyager 1 has traveled billions of miles — it is now 11 billion miles from the sun. Voyager 2 is not far behind, at 9 billion miles from the sun.

According to NASA, both spacecraft have spent the last five years exploring the outer layer of the heliosphere, “the giant bubble of charged particles the sun blows around itself.”

Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, Calif., said the two spacecraft were in great shape, considering they had flown through Jupiter’s “dangerous radiation environment” and had endured the frigid temperatures of space for decades.

“When Voyager was launched, the space agency itself was only 20 years old,” noted Stone, who also is a longtime physics professor at the California Institute of Technology. “We always hoped we would reach interstellar space.”

Scientists didn’t just hope for it. They planned for it. The spacecraft’s CRS — Cosmic Ray Subsystem — was intended specifically for use in interstellar space, Stone said.

“It was able to measure many things” along the journey, Stone said, “but its prime purpose was determining the interstellar spectrum of cosmic rays.”

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