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Voyager 1



Voyager 1 was one of a pair of spacecraft launched to explore the planets of the outer solar system and the interplanetary environment. Each Voyager had as its major objectives at each planet to: (1) investigate the circulation, dynamics, structure, and composition of the planet's atmosphere; (2) characterize the morphology, geology, and physical state of the satellites of the planet; (3) provide improved values for the mass, size, and shape of the planet, its satellites, and any rings; and, (4) determine the magnetic field structure and characterize the composition and distribution of energetic trapped particles and plasma therein.

Spacecraft and Subsystems

Each Voyager consisted of a decahedral bus, 47 cm in height and 1.78 m across from flat to flat. A 3.66 m diameter parabolic high-gain antenna was mounted on top of the bus. The major portion of the science instruments were mounted on a science boom extending out some 2.5 m from the spacecraft. At the end of the science boom was a steerable scan platform on which were mounted the imaging and spectroscopic remote sensing instruments. Also mounted at various distances along the science boom were the plasma and charged particle detectors. The magnetometers were located along a separate boom extending 13 m on the side opposite the science boom. A third boom, extending down and away from the science instruments, held the spacecraft's radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). Two 10 m whip antennas (used for the plasma wave and planetary radio astronomy investigations) also extended from the spacecraft, each perpendicular to the other. The spacecraft was three-axis spin stabilized to enable long integration times and selective viewing for the instruments mounted on the scan platform.

Power was provided to the spacecraft systems and instruments through the use of three radioisotope thermoelectric generators. The RTGs were assembled in tandem on a deployable boom hinged on an outrigger arrangement of struts attached to the basic structure. Each RTG unit, contained in a beryllium outer case, was 40.6 cm in diameter, 50.8 cm in length, and weighed 39 kg. The RTGs used a radioactive source (Plutonium-238 in the form of plutonium oxide, or PuO2, in this case) which, as it decayed, gave off heat. A bi-metallic thermoelectric device was used to convert the heat to electric power for the spacecraft. The total output of RTGs slowly decreases with time as the radioactive material is expended. Therefore, although the initial output of the RTGs on Voyager was approximately 470 W of 30 V DC power at launch, it had fallen off to approximately 335 W by the beginning of 1997 (about 19.5 years post-launch). As power continues to decrease, power loads on the spacecraft must also decrease. Current estimates (1998) are that increasingly limited instrument operations can be carried out at least until 2020.

Communications were provided through the high-gain antenna with a low-gain antenna for backup. The high-gain antenna supported both X-band and S-band downlink telemetry. Voyager was the first spacecraft to utilize X-band as the primary telemetry link frequency. Data could be stored for later transmission to Earth through the use of an on-board digital tape recorder.

Voyager, because of its distance from Earth and the resulting time-lag for commanding, was designed to operate in a highly-autonomous manner. In order to do this and carry out the complex sequences of spacecraft motions and instrument operations, three interconnected on-board computers were utilized. The Computer Command Subsystem (CCS) was responsible for storing commanding for the other two computers and issuing the commands at set times. The Attitude and Articulation Control Subsystem (AACS) was responsible for controlling spacecraft attitude and motions of the scan platform. The Flight Data Subsystem (FDS) controlled the instruments, including changes in configuration (state) or telemetry rates. All three computers had redundant components to ensure continued operations. The AACS included redundant star trackers and Sun sensors as well.

Message in a Bottle

Each Voyager has mounted to one of the sides of the bus a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk. The disk has recorded on it sounds and images of Earth designed to portray the diversity of life and culture on the planet. Each disk is encased in a protective aluminum jacket along with a cartridge and a needle. Instructions explaining from where the spacecraft originated and how to play the disk are engraved onto the jacket. Electroplated onto a 2 cm area on the cover is also an ultra-pure source of uranium-238 (with a radioactivity of about 0.26 nanocuries and a half-life of 4.51 billion years), allowing the determination of the elapsed time since launch by measuring the amount of daughter elements to remaining U238. The 115 images on the disk were encoded in analog form. The sound selections (including greetings in 55 languages, 35 sounds, natural and man-made, and portions of 27 musical pieces) are designed for playback at 1000 rpm. The Voyagers were not the first spacecraft designed with such messages to the future. Pioneers 10 and 11, LAGEOS, and the Apollo landers also included plaques with a similar intent, though not quite so ambitious.

Mission Profile

Originally planned as a Grand Tour of the outer planets, including dual launches to Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto in 1976-77 and dual launches to Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune in 1979, budgetary constraints caused a dramatic rescoping of the project to two spacecraft, each of which would go to only Jupiter and Saturn. The new mission was called Mariner Jupiter/Saturn, or MJS. It was subsequently renamed Voyager about six months prior to launch. The rescoped mission was estimated to cost $250 million (through the end of Saturn operations), only a third of what the Grand Tour design would have cost.

Originally scheduled to launch twelve days after Voyager 2, Voyager 1's launch was delayed twice to prevent the occurrence of problems which Voyager 2 experienced after launch. Voyager 1's launch finally happened on 05 Sept. 1977 and was termed "flawless and accurate".

Although launched sixteen days after Voyager 2, Voyager 1's trajectory was the quicker one to Jupiter. On 15 Dec. 1977, while both spacecraft were in the asteroid belt, Voyager 1 surpassed Voyager 2's distance from the Sun. Voyager 1 then proceeded to Jupiter (making its closest approach on 05 March 1979) and Saturn (with closest approach on 12 Nov. 1980). Both prior to and after planetary encounters observations were made of the interplanetary medium. Some 18,000 images of Jupiter and its satellites were taken by Voyager 1. In addition, roughly 16,000 images of Saturn, its rings and satellites were obtained.

After its encounter with Saturn, Voyager 1 remained relatively quiescent, continuing to make in situ observations of the interplanetary environment and UV observations of stars. After nearly nine years of dormancy, Voyager 1's cameras were once again turned on to take a series of pictures. On 14 Feb. 1990, Voyager 1 looked back from whence it came and took the first "family portrait" of the solar system, a mosaic of 60 frames of the Sun and six of the planets (Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) as seen from "outside" the solar system. After this final look back, the cameras on Voyager 1 were once again turned off.

All of the experiments, save the photopolarimeter (which failed to operate), have produced useful data.

Onward and Outward

Rechristened the Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM) by NASA in 1989 (after Voyager 2's Neptune encounter), Voyager 1 continues operations, taking measurements of the interplanetary magnetic field, plasma, and charged particle environment while searching for the heliopause (the distance at which the solar wind becomes subsumed by the more general interstellar wind). Through the end of the Neptune phase of the Voyager project, a total of $875 million had been expended for the construction, launch, and operations of both Voyager spacecraft. An additional $30 million was allocated for the first two years of VIM.

Voyager 1 is speeding away from the Sun at a velocity of about 3.50 AU/year toward a point in the sky of RA= 262 degrees, Dec=+12 degrees (35.55 degrees ecliptic latitude, 260.78 degrees ecliptic longitude). Late on 17 February 1998, Voyager 1 became the most distant man-made object from the Sun, surpassing the distance of Pioneer 10.

Alternate Names

  • Mariner Jupiter/Saturn A
  • 10321

Facts in Brief

Launch Date: 1977-09-05
Launch Vehicle: Titan IIIE-Centaur
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral, United States
Mass: 721.9 kg
Nominal Power: 420.0 W

Funding Agency

  • NASA-Office of Space Science Applications (United States)


  • Astronomy
  • Planetary Science
  • Space Physics

Additional Information

Questions or comments about this spacecraft can be directed to: Dr. Edwin V. Bell, II.



NameRoleOriginal AffiliationE-mail
Prof. Edward C. Stone, Jr.Project ScientistCalifornia Institute of
Mr. Ed B. MasseyProject ManagerNASA Jet Propulsion
Dr. William E. BrunkProgram ScientistNASA Headquarters 
Ms. Ann C. MerwarthProgram ManagerNASA Headquarters 

Selected References

Stone, E. C., Voyager mission: Encounters with Saturn, J. Geophys. Res., 88, No. A11, 8639-8642, Nov. 1983.

Stone, E. C., The Voyager mission through the Jupiter encounters, J. Geophys. Res., 86, No. A10, 8123-8124, Sept. 1981.

Other Voyager Information/Data at NSSDCA

NSSDCA Voyager page

Data available on-line

View selected images from the NSSDCA Photo Gallery taken by Voyager 1/2 of:

Data coverage charts for on-line, interplanetary datasets at NSSDCA, PDS, and experiment team sites for Voyager 1 and Voyager 2

Related Information/Data at NSSDCA


Other Sources of Voyager Information/Data

Voyager project page (NASA JPL)

Cosmic Ray Subsystem (CRS) (NASA GSFC)
Low-Energy Charged Particle (LECP) (JHU/APL)
Magnetometer (MAG) (NASA GSFC)
Plasma Science (PLS) (MIT)
Plasma Wave System (PWS) (U. of Iowa)

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