When Voyager 1 and 2 launched from Cape Canaveral in 1977, these twin spacecraft were designed to last five years. Within that timeframe, they completed their primary goals: seeing Jupiter and Saturn. They captured images of active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io, and then, flying close to Saturn, they revealed for the first time that Saturn’s rings are made up of thousands of small bands.
Forty-one years later, the sturdy spacecraft are still zipping through space, upgraded by remote control. Voyager 1 is now 13 billion miles away from earth, with Voyager 2 not far behind. Between them, they’ve seen 48 moons and all of the “gas giant” planets. They’ve passed Pluto and are now sending scientists data from interstellar space. Though scientists have shut off some of Voyagers’ instruments to save power, at least one instrument on each will remain active through 2025, sending scientists new data from the edge of the solar system.
All this time, the Voyager spacecraft have been carrying precious cargo. Each carries a copy of the Golden Record, a gold-plated copper phonograph recording Carl Sagan and his team designed to tell the story of life on earth. If extraterrestrials were to listen to the Golden Record, they would hear sounds of earth’s natural world, like whales, thunder and surf, and they would hear greetings in 55 languages. They would also see images—such as pictures of DNA structure and photographs of rural and urban settings around the world. Like a sailor with a message in a bottle, Carl Sagan pictured the Voyager flights launching a “bottle into the cosmic ocean.” Even after these spacecraft stop sending data home, they will continue to fly through space, carrying their Golden Records, aiming toward distant stars it will take 40,000 years to reach.