Home Science Space How did Voyager 1 get to be the furthest human-made object out in space?

The NASA Voyager 1 spacecraft is about to traverse the boundary between the Sun's influence and interstellar space. We accomplished this feat with some inventive mathematics and a slingshot method developed through a computer program by a diligent graduate student? Find out more here!

NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft has indicated to scientists back on Earth that it is within a region where charged particles that originated in deep space, what we also call interstellar space, have increased in their numbers.

This data indicates that Voyager 1 is about to step into interstellar space. When it does indeed cross the boundary from our solar system to interstellar space, it will be our first mission to do so -- an accomplishment that has taken over 35 years. 

Voyager 1 was launched by NASA on September 5, 1977. Its mission was to study the outer Solar System and interstellar medium. Its image, above, is courtesy of NASA.

Now operating for over 35 years, the spacecraft is still controlled by NASA's Deep Space Network.

As of October 2012, the spacecraft is about 122 astronomical units (AU) away from Earth, which relates to about 18,300,000,000 kilometers (11,340,000,000 miles) -- or about 122 times the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun.

It is the furthest human-made object from Earth -- and that is a feat in and of itself.

In NASA's June 14, 2012 articl "Data From NASA's Voyager 1 Point to Interstellar Future", Ed Stone, the project scientist for the Voyager mission, stated, "The laws of physics say that someday Voyager will become the first human-made object to enter interstellar space, but we still do not know exactly when that someday will be. The latest data indicate that we are clearly in a new region where things are changing more quickly. It is very exciting. We are approaching the solar system's frontier."

But, how did we mathematically accomplish such a mission. It was greatly helped along by a 25-year-old mathematics graduate called Michael Minovitch, back in 1961.

The story about how Voyager accomplished its lengthy mission with the help of Minovitch is detailed in the October 22, 2012 BBC News article "The maths that made Voyager possible".

It begins with, "Nasa's Voyager spacecraft have enthralled everyone with their exploits at the edge of the Solar System, but their launch in 1977 was only possible because of some clever maths and the persistence of a PhD student who worked out how to slingshot probes into deep space."

The article stated later, "Astronomers had been pondering the three-body problem for at least 300 years, ever since they'd started plotting the path that comets took as they fell through the inner Solar System towards the Sun."

And, "Undeterred by the fact that some of the finest minds in history, including Isaac Newton hadn't solved the three-body problem, Minovitch became focused on cracking it. He intended to use the IBM 7090 computer to home in on a solution using a method of iteration."

Please read the BBC News article to find out the mathematical story of Voyager 1. It just might slingshot you out of this world!


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William Atkins

William Atkins completed educational degrees in science (bachelor’s in physics and mathematics) from Illinois State University (Normal, United States) and business (master’s in entrepreneurship and bachelor’s in industrial relations) from Western Illinois University