The Spacecraft Tarot: Voyager

Tippy Ki Yay
6 min readMar 7, 2021
The original watercolor illustration is by me, Tippy Ki Yay. The background image is Hubble imagery and the credit belongs to NASA, ESA, and J. Olmsted (STScI).

The Hermit takes solace in time spent alone.

Recognizing the value in quiet reflection, the Hermit does not associate alone time with loneliness or despair — instead, he relishes it. The Hermit views solitude 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 solitude the most.

No spacecraft understands the meaning of being alone quite like the Voyager project. 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.

Voyager 1 launches into space from Kennedy Space Center on the Titan IIIE rocket
Voyager 1 launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on September 5, 1977. Image Credit: NASA

The idea for Voyager was a literal manifestation of “the stars aligning.” In 1965, NASA scientists 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.

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

Voyager 2 launched first (but was scheduled to reach Jupiter and Saturn last) aboard a Titan-Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida on August 20, 1977. Voyager 1 followed closely behind, launching a couple of weeks later on September 5.

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. Image Credit: NASA

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 mission, which currently investigates the storms in Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere. NASA teams are currently developing the Europa Clipper mission to learn more the ocean possibly lying underneath this Jupiter moon’s frozen surface. These discoveries will help planetary scientists understand the physical features of other planets and moons, in order to paint a more accurate picture of our universe.

Voyager added further detail to the picture when the two spacecraft reached Saturn on November 9, 1980 and August 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 one discovered 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.

Voyager 2 captured this image of the Saturnian satellite Titan from 2.8 million miles away on August 22, 1981. Image Credit: NASA

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

Voyager 2 is the first, and so far only, spacecraft to have traveled to Uranus and Neptune. Between its encounter with Uranus on January 24, 1986, and its encounter with Neptune on August 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.

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

In order to conserve energy, NASA teams powered down the cameras on both spacecraft. But before Voyager 1 turned its camera off, the spacecraft took one last look back at our solar system on February 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 stitched together by imaging 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, August 25, 2012 and November 5, 2018, respectively, the focus of their mission shifted from our solar system to what lies beyond it. As the twin spacecraft wander farther and farther away from our Sun, they measure the outer limits of our Sun’s magnetic field and the gradual 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.

A golden phonograph record
The cover of the Golden Record, engraved with instructions on how to use it. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

As Voyager 1 and 2 continue their journeys, surviving well past their expected five-year lifespans, 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. The Golden Record carries a message for any who come across it, like a lantern or a lighthouse beckoning weary travelers.

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.

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 February 14, 1990. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Read the complete Spacecraft Tarot series.

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