History of the Voyager Program for Kids

Take a moment to think about the furthest you’ve ever been from home? Was it a different state, province, or even a different country? Did you take a car, a boat, or a plane to get there? What was it like to be so far from home? 

Now, what do you think of when you hear the word “voyager”? A voyage is like a journey or long trip. When I think of “voyager,” I think of someone going into new and unknown places, exploring and learning. What “voyagers” do you know? The world is pretty big with lots of places to explore, but the biggest place to explore the unknown is Outer Space. It’s only been a little over 50 years since the first human, Neil Armstrong, walked on the Moon. There’s still so much we don’t know! In the late 1970s two space probes (kind of like a spaceship without people on it) were launched with the idea that they could explore more and go further than ever before. They are called Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. They have been on an incredible journey for decades and still have so much more to do!

As you may know, our solar system’s planets revolve around the sun. Every 175 years a very special event happens when the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune line up. The Voyager Program started in 1964 when a scientist named Gary Flandro discovered that this would be happening several years in the future and just one spacecraft would be able to fly by all of them! If they could send a spacecraft to see them all in one voyage this would save a lot of time and money. The project idea was called “The Grand Tour”. Sadly, it ended up being canceled in 1971 because it was going to cost $1 billion dollars.

Fortunately, the idea of a grand tour was reborn a few years later. The opportunity of the planets lining up for NASA was just too good to resist. The new project was estimated to cost $250 million dollars, much less than The Grand Tour project. This time, NASA was going to make two probes, and they were going to visit Jupiter, Saturn and one of Saturn’s moons, Titan. They made two probes so in case something happened to one, the other would be able to finish the mission and visit the two planets. But what everyone at NASA was really hoping for was that Voyager 1 would be successful and they would have Voyager 2 go and do the Grand Tour.

One of the most important parts of the Voyagers were their cameras. The purpose of the spacecraft would be to take pictures of the planets as they passed by. They also had to be able to send pictures back to earth using radio transmission. So the Voyagers were designed with very powerful cameras and radio devices for sending the images to Earth, so scientists could study the images and other data and learn more about the other planets in our solar system. 

Imagine you met someone who didn’t know anything about life on Earth.  What things would you want to teach them? What are the most important things about life on Earth that you’d want them to know? Scientists at NASA knew that the Voyagers had the potential to go very, very far. Even beyond our solar system. What if the Voyagers were discovered by alien life way out in the galaxy? They decided to put a message on each Voyager just in case it was ever discovered by intelligent life. They named the device the Golden Record. A record was a way to store information and listen to music back when your grandparents were younger. If you know what a CD or compact disc is, it’s like a very big CD. 

Scientist Carl Sagan was asked to decide what would be sent on the Voyagers. He and other scientists at NASA put 115 different pictures on the record, of what people look like at different ages, pictures of nature and animals. There were pictures of architecture from around the world and different people from around the world. The team put math equations, chemistry formulas, and pictures of the planets to show our understanding of science. Sagan also put a lot of different sounds on the record! Sounds like the ocean and birds, music from different cultures and time periods. They also included the spoken greetings of 55 languages. Finally instructions, and the equipment needed, were included to play the record and get all of the information off of it.

Here’s a question for you: what do the Voyagers and leftovers in your fridge have in common? They both use kitchen foil to protect them! A lot of design ideas for Voyager were taken from an earlier project named Pioneer 10. Space has very intense radiation and it is especially strong around Jupiter. Voyager had to be able to handle the intense radiation. Right before Voyager was launched, kitchen grade aluminum foil was wrapped around certain cables to give them even more protection! Another cool thing about Voyager is it weighs 1,704 pounds and 231 pounds of it are scientific instruments for gathering different types of data. There are cameras on board that took pictures when it was closer to earth and it has very special antennas that it still uses to communicate with NASA and tell us where it is.

After all of the preparations, Voyager 2 was finally launched in August 1977. Voyager 1 was launched the next month. Even though Voyager 1 was launched later, it was faster and got to Jupiter two years later! That gives you an idea of how big our solar system is. Voyager 2 got there 4 months later. Voyager 2 then reached Uranus at the beginning of 1986. The mission was a huge success! Both Voyagers were able to take pictures of the planets as they passed by and sent images back to Earth. Scientists were able to study these images and other data and learn more about these planets.

Finally, in 1990 when Voyager 1 was 6 billion miles from Earth, (that is very, very far) – it was turned around to take a picture of our solar system. That picture is now known as “Family Portrait”. In it you can see Jupiter, Earth, Venus, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and the Sun. In the picture the Earth is a small blue dot. Scientist Carl Sagan later wrote a book about how seeing the Earth so small in the solar system made him see life in a whole new way. The book was called “Pale Blue Dot.” It’s kind of crazy to think that in the solar system we are so very small! This picture of our solar system is the last one that the Voyagers took. 

Remember the first question I asked? What is the furthest you have ever been from home? Can you imagine what the Voyagers answer would be!? As of now, they are very, very far from earth. So we have a sun, which is the center of our solar system, with planets orbiting around it. But what’s past that? While studying about the Voyagers I learned about the heliopause. The heliopause is the outer layer of the heliosphere, which is almost like a giant bubble that surrounds our sun and solar system and everything that orbits it. Once you pass through the heliosphere, you are in Deep Space! Outside of the solar system! Believe it or not, that is where both Voyagers are today! Deep space, out of the Solar System! It blows my mind to think about it. They’ve gone further than any man-made device before them. Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause in 2012 and Voyager 2 crossed in 2018. 

How far will the Voyagers continue to go? We aren’t completely sure. Being able to track them depends on how long their power is able to last. The electrical power of Voyager is from plutonium, the same material used to make nuclear weapons. Over time the plutonium decays and doesn’t put out as much energy. In October 2011, their power had dropped to almost half. As the power drops, Voyager won’t be able to take as many pictures or communicate back to earth. Scientists think that by 2032 there won’t be enough power for them to communicate. But for now, both are in contact with NASA through the Deep Space Network and we still get to enjoy seeing where they are! Voyager 1 is currently over 14 billion miles from Earth, and Voyager 2 isn’t far behind. Amazing, right?

As you think about how far Voyager has gone and all that it has done and seen, think about your own voyage (or journey) in life. What places do you want to see? Where do you want to go? It doesn’t have to be the solar system and deep space to be rewarding. But it’s great to make plans and work toward them just as the scientists at NASA did with the Voyagers.