More than three years after its launch, the U.S. planetary probe Voyager 1 edges within 77,000 miles of Saturn, the second-largest planet in the solar system. The photos, beamed 950 million miles back to California, stunned scientists. The high-resolution images showed a world that seemed to confound all known laws of physics. Saturn had not six, but hundreds of rings. The rings appeared to dance, buckle, and interlock in ways never thought possible. Two rings were intertwined, or “braided,” and pictures showed dark radial “spokes” moving inside the rings in the direction of rotation. Voyager 2, a sister spacecraft, arrived at Saturn in August 1981. The Voyagers also discovered three new moons around Saturn and a substantial atmosphere around Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.
Voyager 1 was preceded to Saturn by Pioneer 11, a smaller and less sophisticated U.S. spacecraft that flew by the gas giant in September 1979. The Voyager spacecrafts were equipped with high-resolution television cameras that sent back more than 30,000 images of Saturn, its rings, and satellite. Voyager 1 was actually launched 16 days after Voyager 2, but its trajectory followed a quicker path to the outer planets.
Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter in March 1979, followed by Voyager 2 four months later. Both spacecraft then continued on to Saturn, with Voyager 1 arriving in November 1980 and Voyager 2 in August 1981. Voyager 2 was then diverted to the remaining gas giants, arriving at Uranus in January 1986 and Neptune in August 1989. Voyager 1, meanwhile, studied interplanetary space and continued on to the edge of the solar system.
In February 1998, Voyager 1 became the most distant man-made object from the sun, surpassing the distance of Pioneer 10. Voyager 2 is also traveling out of the solar system but at a slower pace. Both Voyager spacecrafts contain a gold-plated copper disk that has on it recorded sounds and images of Earth. Along with 115 analog images, the disk features sound selections that include greetings in 55 languages, 35 natural and man-made sounds, and portions of 27 musical pieces. The Voyagers are expected to remain operable until about the year 2020, periodically sending back data on the edge of the solar system.