"The little space probe that could"—that's what space scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California might nickname Voyager 1. A science investment with incredible dividends that just keep coming, Voyager's discoveries are helping to reshape the understanding of the solar system and the space around the region of the sun's domain.
As the intrepid spacecraft closes in on interstellar space records are being smashed and knowledge expanded. The latest conquest the probe has managed is the detection of a previously unknown "magnetic highway" that solar scientists were unaware existed.
The little spacecraft that could
NASA's Voyager 1, launched September 5, 1977 [photo] was tasked to investigate and report on the environment of the solar outlands and the mysteries of the never-before-traveled interstellar space.
On its way to the great unknown, Voyager 1, accompanied by its twin spacecraft Voyager 2, stopped off to explore the Jovian world in January 1979.
Snapping photos that would have boggled Galileo's mind, the spacecraft pushed forward the frontiers of knowledge about planetary science and gas giants in particular. The data gleaned from it encounter with the largest planet in the solar system has led some exobologists to wonder if some of Jupiter's layers of atmosphere might sustain life. Others have investigated the theory that Jupiter's core may contain a sapphire bigger than Earth.
The Jovian moons also elicted surprise and delight from scientists around the globe.
Eventually, Voyager 1 had to leave the Jovian system—almost like a miniature solar system itself—and traveled on with Voyager 2 to the great ringed planet, Saturn, arriving during November 1980.
The incredible beauty of Saturn is only matched by the mystery of its rings and amazing facts like the planet's density is so low that if a big enough bathtub could be filled with water Saturn would float.
Jupiter and beyond to the infinite
In the landmark film, "2001: A Space Odyssey," Sir Arthur C, Clarke and Stanley Kubrick envisioned a spacecraft leaving Jupiter and traveling beyond the solar system toward the infinite. Now Voyager is poised to do just that.
The spacecraft is now the farthest object evermade by Man. It's heading into the unknown heliosheath, the last border of the domain of the sun before giving way to the infinite totality of interstellar space.
According to officials at NASA, Voyager 1 discovered a previously undetected part of the heliosphere on December 3, 2012.
"We are in a magnetic region unlike any we've been in before—about 10 times more intense than before the termination shock—but the magnetic field data show no indication we're in interstellar space," Leonard Burlaga, a scientist on the Voyager magnetometer team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland is quoted by Discovery.com. "The magnetic field data turned out to be the key to pinpointing when we crossed the termination shock. And we expect these data will tell us when we first reach interstellar space."
NASA predicts that Voyager 1 will enter the interstellar space sometime between 2012 to 2015.
That's one pretty big step for a robot spacecraft, another giant leap for Mankind.