In 1977, Voyager 2 was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on August 20th, with Voyager 1’s launch two weeks later on September 5th. NASA had launched these spacecraft at a special period when the outer planets had started to align with one another, creating a cosmic alignment; occurring every 176 years, scientists took advantage of this rare opportunity to use the gravitational force of each planet to launch the Voyagers between the planets, saving fuel in what was known as a “slingshot method”. Both probes were equipped with a golden record as well as 10 scientific instruments: a two-camera imaging system, spectrometers, and a magnetometer. The crafts are also powered by 3 radioisotope thermoelectric generators which convert heat released by the radioactive decay of plutonium to electricity. Presently, the Voyagers have both survived over 40 years of operation, and have now left into interstellar space to further explore the solar system.
After both Voyager probes successfully completed their missions and outlasted NASA’s expectations of them continuing to be functional, they have now started traveling further through the cosmos. Voyager 1 was the first to pass by and observe the outer planets and was also the first to reach interstellar space in August 2012 of August. Voyager 1 found some interesting new findings about Jupiter that surprised NASA. These included 2 new moons: Metis and Thebe, as well as a small, thin ring system around the gas giant. As always, these space probes took lots of pictures, such as of Ganymede and Europa. Voyager 1 also found that moons could contain other geological features absent on Earth’s moon; the volcanoes on Io and hints of the subsurface ocean and past traces of ice on Europa. Voyager 1 later left the heliosphere, entering interstellar space after completing its mission and successfully continuing its journey of exploring (however, not outside the solar system as the vehicles have not exited the Sun’s gravitational force).
While Voyager 1 primarily focused on Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 2 flew past all four of the outer planets. Voyager 2 made close-up observations of Uranus, including that its south pole faced the Sun and that it was made of 85% hydrogen and 15% helium. It also discovered Uranus’ ring system, 10 new moons, and a magnetic field that was 55 degrees off of the planet’s axis. Voyager 2 found a ring system on Neptune as well and then exited the heliopause (a boundary created by solar wind from the Sun that also separates interstellar space from our solar system).
Although both space vehicles are active as of today, both Voyagers are constantly depleting in fuel, as well as cooling. Eventually, power will run out and the probes will be unable to transmit signals back to Earth. However, Voyager 1 claims to have 70% of its fuel left, which will make it operational until 2025, yet the effects of interstellar space and unknown factors might continue to keep the spacecraft roaming the unknown abyss of space for many more years to come..or be the reason the probes disconnect from Earth forever.
The most interesting thing about the program lies within the mission objective. NASA has decided to set camp down on the Moon in hopes of allowing astronauts to spend up to months at a time on the lunar surface, collecting data and experimenting with staying on the Moon for a longer period of time. A Lunar Gateway was designed that is currently orbiting the Moon. It acts like the ISS, yet it serves primarily as a station where astronauts can take shelter and continue to research the lunar surface. After an Orion capsule delivers four astronauts to the gateway, two would go down to spend a week on the surface and sample the surface while the remaining would stay aboard. NASA has also developed Lunar Vehicles, which will help transport humans and cargo/supplies from the Lunar Gateway to the rocky surface of the Moon (including the astronauts). This ensures multiple and continuous missions to the Moon, in comparison to the one-way mission performed during the Apollo Program. Many other instruments are currently being built that will be covered in much greater detail in a future article.
The first mission is Artemis I which will be launched on a Space Launch System (SLS) by the end of this year to test the newly powerful rocket, “Block 1”, that will return astronauts to the moon, as well as a new Orion capsule developed for the crew to travel in. The mission is simply for the spacecraft to remain orbiting the Moon–around 62 miles from the surface–in a 20-26 day mission before landing back on Earth.
Shortly after, Artemis II will be launched by NASA which will be a four-person crewed mission around the Moon. The test flight will last around 10 days and will help gather further information and data before the actual flight. With both these test missions helping to contribute to a safer flight, Artemis III will take off with four astronauts to the Moon on a 30-day mission. The Lunar Landing System will then transport two of the astronauts down to the south pole region of the Moon, which has yet to be explored. Within the span of a week, NASA hopes that the astronauts can collect samples of water ice, and once again make history on the Moon.
Although humans have been to and explored the Moon countless times before, technology has advanced significantly. NASA has introduced its “Moon to Mars” mission which introduces one of the key focuses of the Artemis Program of simulating a multi-month operation that would be conducted on the red planet in the near future.