Voyager: The little spacecraft that could, did and still does


One afternoon more than four decades ago, the University of Tennessee astronomer Gary Flandro, then a Caltech graduate student working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, was playing with numbers, as scientists and astronomers do. He realized that in 1977 the outer planets – Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus – would be in a rare alignment – the first since Thomas Jefferson’s days.

Using the gravity of each planetary encounter, a spacecraft could photograph, then slingshot past and beyond each planet, enabling the robots to make a grand tour and visit them all on one mission of interplanetary exploration.

 Thus began the amazing, revelatory and romantic voyage of Voyager I and Voyager II, which are still out there voyaging as the farthest man-made objects ever to leave Earth.
 This month, scientists and stargazers widely mourned the demise of the Voyagers’ offspring, Cassini. The NASA mission to Saturn leaves some 13 years’ worth of invaluable data and images in its wake.