The Voyager probes are pioneers of science, going further into space than any other man-made object.
Originally sent on a four-year mission to Jupiter and Saturn in 1977, the twin probes exceeded all expectations and are still on the move 45 years later.
Among their accomplishments are the amazing photos of the sun they returned before the cameras shut down.
But now they face an incurable problem: They’re running out of power, and NASA scientists are beginning to shut down even more onboard instruments to conserve energy.
As they near the end of their mission, here are 18 images from Voyager that changed science:
The Voyager probes were designed to visit Jupiter and Saturn.
The Voyager mission consisted of two probes, Voyager 1 and 2, launched within a few months in 1977.
The launches took advantage of a rare alignment of planets that allowed them to launch their voyages into space with a turbocharger.
They were originally built to last five years, but have exceeded that lifespan many times over.
This is what Voyager saw as it approached Jupiter.
Voyager 1 and 2 reached Jupiter in 1979. They took a total of about 50,000 images of the planet, which NASA says far exceeded the quality of images taken of Earth.
The images taught scientists important facts about the planet’s atmosphere, magnetic forces and geology that would otherwise have been difficult to decipher.
The probes discovered two new moons orbiting Jupiter: Thebe and Metis.
As well as a thin ring around Jupiter
The probe captured this image while looking at the planet backlit by the Sun.
Voyager 1’s biggest discovery was volcanic activity on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Io.
Next stop: Saturn
The probes reached Saturn in 1980 and 1981. The flyby provided unprecedented insights into the planet’s ring structure, atmosphere and moons.
Voyager taught scientists the details of Saturn’s rings, captured here in false color.
Enceladus, Saturn’s moon, was seen by Voyager in unprecedented detail.
This image, taken as the probe flew away, offered a unique view of the planet, letting us see the part in the shadows.
By 1986, Voyager 2 had reached Uranus
Voyager 1 continued straight ahead and would not hit any other planet on its journey out of the solar system.
But Voyager 2 continued its exploration of our nearest planets, passing within 50,600 miles of Uranus in January 1986.
It discovered two additional rings around Uranus, revealing that the planet had at least 11, not 9.
His images of the largest moons of Uranus revealed their complicated geological past. It also revealed 11 previously invisible moons.
Here is an image of Miranda, the sixth largest moon of Uranus.
Voyager 2 was the first spacecraft to observe Neptune up close.
In 1989, 12 years after its launch, Voyager 2 passed within 3,000 miles of Neptune.
One image shows blue Neptune in full.
A picture shows Triton’s rough surface.
It captured Triton, Neptune’s moon, in unprecedented detail.
Another shows Triton’s southern hemisphere.
It captured Neptune’s rings.
Here the crescent shape of Neptune’s south pole was seen by Voyager as it departed.
Voyager 2 would never take pictures again. Since it would not hit another planet on its further journey, NASA turned off its cameras after the Neptune flyby to save energy for other instruments.
Voyager took 60 images of the solar system from a distance of about 4 billion miles.
As the last photographic hooray, in 1990 Voyager 1 took 60 images of the solar system from a distance of 4 billion miles.
It gave us the most distant self-portrait on Earth, dubbed the “pale blue dot.”
This will likely remain the longest-range selfie in human history for some time, a portrait of Earth from 4 billion miles away.
After this image, Voyager 1’s cameras were also turned off to conserve power. It’s possible that the probes’ cameras will turn back on, but it’s not a priority for the mission.
Beyond the solar system
Although the probes are no longer sending images, they haven’t stopped sending important information about space.
In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first man-made instrument to traverse interstellar space by crossing the heliopause, the boundary between our solar system and the rest of the universe.
Voyager 2 was the second to cross the border in 2018. Then it turned out that there was an additional boundary around our solar bubble.
The probes are constantly sending back readings from interstellar space, like strange humming, that likely stem from vibrations from nearby stars.
Even after their instruments have been switched off, the probes’ mission continues
Now NASA is beginning to shut down the probes’ last instruments in hopes of extending their lifespan into the 2030s.
But even after all instruments have gone silent, the probes will still drift away with the gold disc that could yield crucial information about humanity if intelligent extraterrestrial life exists and it stumbles upon the probes.
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