NASA’s Voyager 1 launched in 1977, just shortly after its twin spacecraft, Voyager 2. But will it ever come back to Earth?
Voyager 1 explored both the Jovian and Saturnian systems. It discovered new moons, active volcanoes, and more precious data about the outer solar system.
In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to travel beyond the limits of interstellar space. And crossed through the heliopause.
It’s been over 40 years of exploration and the spacecraft is still communicating with NASA’s Deep Space Network and transmitting data from the furthest realms of the Solar System.
Watch Our Video: Is Voyager 1 Coming Back To Earth?
The Voyager 1 is the most distant human-made object and is now over 14 billion miles away from Earth or 151 astronomical units away from the Sun. For comparison, Earth is just 1 astronomical unit away from the Sun. Neptune, the farthest planet, is 30 astronomical units away from the Sun.
Signals from Voyager 1 take over 20 hours to reach Earth.
The Voyager twins have returned a total of five trillion bits of scientific data after the Neptune encounter. This represents enough bits to fill more than seven thousand music CDs.
The sensitivity of the Deep Space Network antennas located around the world is mind-blowing. The antennas must capture Voyager information from a signal so weak that the power striking the antenna is only 10 exponent -16 watts (1 part in 10 quadrillion).
A modern-day electronic digital watch operates at a power level 20 billion times greater than this weak level.
The Voyager twins will begin powering down electrical components soon, with all electronic functions ceasing some time around 2025. That means no data will flow back from that distant location.
But could NASA be able to instruct the Voyager spacecraft to return to Earth?
The probe is traveling out of the solar system at speeds of over 35,000 miles per hour.
It used gravity assists for the majority of its velocity gain to get where it is right now.
The Voyager doesn’t have much fuel left to change its path. It has never had the kind of engines to change its velocity that would be needed to intersect Earth. There’s also not enough electrical power to sustain itself on a trip home.
The only reason we can track its location is that the probe is actively transmitting back to Earth. This means, even if some friendly alien tried to help us and aimed the Voyager back at us, due to insufficient electrical power, the probe would be dead long before it got here, and we would never be able to find it. But even if the alien shot it back to Earth in a perfect trajectory, it would just burn up in the atmosphere. At the moment, we have no way to catch it.
One way to get the Voyager here, however, is to construct a mission to retrieve it. But even that would be almost impossible.
You would have to build a big rocket that would be able to accelerate to a higher speed than Voyager so that it could catch up to it and then reduce its speed so that it can latch into it, somehow.
It would be even more complicated to completely decelerate the rocket AND voyager back to zero speed and get them up to a speed that would get them back to Earth in a reasonable timeframe.
The other problem is that we wouldn’t be able to finance such an incredibly large rocket needed for such a mission with a return ticket.
Even if we were to finance it, constructing a mission that would bring a probe back home only to end up in a museum, where it would look cool, wouldn’t be worth it.
After all, we should be glad!
The voyager was one of the most successful missions of all time. It has even exceeded our expectations in so many ways.
Voyager 1 is now traveling more than 35,000 miles an hour in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus.
In the year 40,272, the spacecraft will sail within 1.7 light-years of the star Gliese 445 in the constellation Camelopardalis.
In 56,000 years, Voyager 1 will exit the Oort cloud, then brush by the stars GJ 686 and GJ 678 in 570,000 years.
After that, it gets a little difficult to predict Voyager’s journey, as chaotic motions within the galaxy make accurate predictions of stellar movements challenging. But given the wide swaths of empty space between the stars, the spacecraft’s visit near Gliese 445 is probably the closest that Voyager 1 will approach another star, ever.
In 200 million years, the lonely spacecraft will complete its first circumnavigation of our galaxy.
The Voyager probe will likely outlive humans. At least humans as we know them.