The Spacecraft Tarot: Voyager

A watercolor painting of the Voyager spacecraft

The Hermit takes solace in time spent alone.

Recognizing the value in quiet reflection, he does not associate alone time with loneliness or despair — instead, he relishes it. He sees it as an opportunity to tend to his mental health, seek inner truths, and withdraw from the day-to-day bustle. Some people crave solitary activities more than others. However, those of us who are afraid of being alone are usually the ones who need it the most.

No spacecraft understands the meaning of being alone quite like Voyager. Both Voyager 1 and 2 have journeyed through our solar system into interstellar space, the region filled with material from stars that have died millions of years ago. After decades of collecting data about our own solar system, Voyager 1 and 2 are traveling farther than any human-made object has ever traveled to learn about the limits of our Sun’s sphere of influence.

The idea for Voyager was a literal manifestation of “the stars aligning.” NASA scientists in 1965 realized that the four giant outer planets in our solar system — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — would align in such a way that a spacecraft launching from Earth in the late 1970s could use the gravity of each planet to propel itself to the next.

Voyager 1 launches into space from Kennedy Space Center on the Titan IIIE rocket
The launch of Voyager 1. Credits: NASA

To take advantage of this planetary alignment, which only happens once every 176 years, NASA planned to launch two different spacecraft, each on slightly different paths to gather as much data as possible from their unique vantage points. They would produce the first closeup studies of Jupiter, Saturn, and the moons around each planet.

Voyager 2 was launched first (but was scheduled to reach Jupiter and Saturn last) from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Aug. 20, 1977. Voyager 1 followed closely behind, launching on Sept. 5.

When Voyager 1 and 2 reached Jupiter (March 5 and July 9, 1979, respectively) their discoveries revolutionized our understanding of planetary science. Voyager data revealed the first lightning, the first active volcanoes, and the first suggestion of an ocean beyond Earth — all on either Jupiter or one of its moons. Later spacecraft would build off the discoveries that Voyager made, such as NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which is currently investigating the storms in Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere. NASA teams are currently developing the Europa Clipper mission to learn more the ocean possibly lying underneath the moon’s frozen surface. These discoveries help planetary scientists understand the physical features of other planets and moons, in order to paint a more accurate picture of our universe.

Thousands of ringlets appear visible in Saturn’s broad rings
Voyager 1 captured this detailed image of Saturn’s rings from 446,000 miles away from the planet. Credits: NASA

Voyager added to the picture further when the two spacecraft reached Saturn on Nov. 9, 1980 and Aug. 25, 1981. Detailed images revealed more about the structures of Saturn’s rings than ever before, unveiling that the broad bands were really just thousands of ringlets close together, varying in compositions and particle sizes. In addition, scientists discovered an organic, orange haze surrounding Saturn’s moon Titan, indicating a thick, nitrogen-rich atmosphere like Earth’s — the first found beyond our home planet. NASA’s Cassini mission has since confirmed seas of liquid ethane and methane on the surface of Titan, increasing the likelihood that the moon could support life. NASA is currently developing the Dragonfly mission to explore the moon for further signs.

Although the Voyager spacecraft were only meant to last five years, by this point they had completed all of their objectives and were still in great shape. NASA scientists added flybys of Uranus and Neptune to Voyager 2’s trajectory and Voyager 1 began the journey into interstellar space.

The swirling blue planet Neptune, as captured by Voyager 2
Voyager 2 captured this image of Neptune on Aug. 25, 1989, five days before the spacecraft’s closest approach to the planet. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyager 2 is the first, and so far only, spacecraft to have traveled to Uranus and Neptune. Between the encounter with Uranus on Jan. 24, 1986, and the encounter with Neptune on Aug. 25, 1989, Voyager 2 discovered new moons and new rings encircling each planet. The spacecraft also determined that Uranus is the only planet in our solar system that rotates at a tilt, possibly due to a collision of an Earth-sized object eons ago. After its flyby with Neptune, Voyager 2 joined its sibling on the trek towards interstellar space.

In order to conserve power, NASA scientists powered down the cameras on both spacecraft. But before Voyager 1 turned its camera off, it took one last look back at our solar system on Feb. 14, 1990, at a distance of 4 billion miles from our Sun — forty times the distance between the Sun and the Earth. The spacecraft captured 60 separate pictures which imaging experts stitched together to create the “Family Portrait of the Solar System.” Earth appears as a single bright blue pixel lost in the swirling vastness of space. Dr. Carl Sagan, a planetary scientist and long-time advisor for NASA since the fruition of the agency, described the iconic image as the “Pale Blue Dot,” emphasizing: “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.”

The knowledge we gained about our solar system from Voyager rewrote the history books. But when Voyager 1 and 2 became the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space, Aug. 25, 2012 and Nov. 5, 2018, respectively, the focus of their mission shifted from our solar system to what lies beyond it. As the twin Voyager spacecraft wander further and further away from our Sun, they measure the outer limits of our Sun’s magnetic field and the slowing of its solar wind. The data Voyager collects will be instrumental to characterize the outer solar system environment, something we still know little about.

The cover of the Golden Record, engraved with instructions on how to use it. Credits: NASA/JPL

As Voyager 1 and 2 continue their journeys, surviving well past their expected lifespans of just five years, they carry with them a message should they ever come across intelligent life. This message takes the form of a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk, bearing both sounds and images from our home planet.

Dr. Sagan chaired the committee that assembled the contents of the Golden Record. Extraterrestrial listeners, should they ever find Voyager, will be treated to greetings from 55 different languages, sounds of the natural world, and music from artists ranging from Mozart to bagpipes to Chuck Berry.

Although it can be tempting to associate alone time with loneliness, Voyager, like the Hermit, shows us that being alone can be the best way to collect information about yourself and your environment. Sometimes we need quiet reflection in order to realize what is most important.

As we near the anniversary of many of us going under lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and uncomfortable being cut off from others. But just like the Voyager spacecraft, careening through space farther than any spacecraft has ever gone — we are never truly alone. The Voyager communicates with NASA scientists via the Deep Space Network, a collection of radio antennas around the world. Through this connection, we are able to learn about our universe. The Golden Record carries a message for any who come across it, like a lantern or a lighthouse beckoning weary travelers. And we are connected to each other as well — through phone lines, through letters, through written words on a screen.

Embrace the Hermit and take solace in that although you are alone, you are not alone.

Earth appears in space as just a tiny, blue pixel in this iconic Voyager 1 image
The iconic “Pale Blue Dot” image captured by Voyager 1 on Feb. 14, 1990. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Every week I will be sharing a new card from the Spacecraft Tarot. For more information about the series, read this.

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