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When Neptune Receives Its Stunning Close-Up: Voyager 2 Flight, 30 Years Later



And the end of Voyager 2's planetary tour on August 25, 1989 ended with a dazzling display of Neptune and his moon, Triton. The images and scientific data returned by Voyager 2 would change our understanding of the solar system.

Voyager 2 is still the only spacecraft to visit the outer planets of Neptune and Uranus.

The Voyager probe began in 1977. Together they visited Saturn and Jupiter and their moons. But then Voyager 2 had a unique opportunity.

"We had the opportunity to contact Voyager 2," said Susan Dodd, Voyager project manager. "Because of the planetary alignment, when the probes launched in 1977, the four giant outer planets were aligned on the same side of the sun, so we could move from one to the next. This was a really great opportunity."

This allowed the spacecraft to use gravity aid from one planet to visit the next, allowed the Voyager program to visit four planets in four years. This alignment occurs only once every 1

76 years.

Trina Ray worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for Voyager 2's Neptune Flight. She joined the General Science Data team as her first job out of college.

There were monitors everywhere in the Voyager Operations Laboratory in Building 264 at JPL, and teams were spread across multiple floors. As Voyager 2 always steered the antenna to Earth, it was constantly retransmitting back data.

Chris Jones helped develop the flight software for the Voyager mission and helped the agency identify the best ways to manage the ever-increasing spacecraft communication distance. He also helped the mission overcome the issue of diminishing light levels to return clear images to Neptune.

Images will encounter monitors, line by line. With the slow approach to Neptune, the planet began as a few pixels, a blurry blue dot that grew a little every day.

  Voyager 2 view of Neptune from 35 miles away.

As the approach approached, everything changed.

Ray was sitting at his desk and someone would say, "Aunt," making everyone look up at the monitors.

"This is the best image of Neptune we have ever seen," one scientist would say. They would return to work until someone else exclaimed and another image came to life.

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"The incredible flow of the meeting was extremely exciting," Ray said. "Over the course of the month leading up to the closest approach, you really caught on to what was happening. There was this sense of acceleration. I have never seen another spacecraft mission profile have that building intensity for months, which leads to incredible data from the days surrounding the closest approach. "

During the flying week, Ray didn't want to fall asleep or even pull away from the monitors for a second. Everyone else was the same. While the spacecraft was briefly out of communication, Ray used one of the showers on site and a nap. No one he knew came home.

Media from around the world were broadcast on the JPL parking lot, showing up for the daily press conference to discuss new images and scientific discoveries.

"It's been five days of incredible science," Ray said. "And there was this strong emotion to understand that this was the last fly. It was the end of an era."

  This stunning portrait of Neptune was taken by Voyager 2 before the closest approach on August 25, 1989.

A new look at Neptune

The Voyager team works together between the ages of 20 and 30, a smooth-running machine full of people who know each other well and are capable of each other.

Ray was a new addition. Voyager would set all her expectations for how the teams work together during the rest of NASA's 30-year career at NASA. This ignites a spark in her and she will spend the next 20 years working in the Cassini orbit in Saturn, which was inspired by Voyager.

The science gathered during the flight of Neptune has revealed that their existing models for the gas giant are too simple to show what is really going on.

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They discovered that the magnetic field of Neptune is pointed away. They found a giant spot called the Big Dark Spot on the planet, similar to the Big Red Spot of Jupiter. But the event was passing because it was gone when the Hubble Space Telescope looked four years later. Neptune has been found to possess some of the fastest and coldest winds in the solar system.

Four rings were discovered around the planet.

And when Voyager 2 flew from Triton, the Moon of Neptune, scientists discovered that it orbited backwards. Unlike the other Neptune moons formed by the debris, after Neptune became a planet, Triton was captured by an object that was pulled into a retrograde orbit.

Six additional moons were discovered during the flight.

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, which once witnessed a negative 391 degrees Fahrenheit. The wild-looking surface was geologically active, with geysers erupting on Triton's frozen nitrogen ice.

Understanding the diversity of our solar system comes from the Voyager fly.

  Neptune's largest moon, Triton, surprised scientists with its active surface.

"Time after time, we found objects that did things we didn't expect," says Ed Stone, a 1975 Voyager scientist and professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology. "He changed our perception of the solar system."

"It was a wonderful experience because there was so much to learn," Stone said, reflecting on his time with the Voyager mission. "We have been able to share this journey for many decades with the public. We could get people on the voyage while discovering things on each of the flights. "

Stone believes that three aspects of Voyager have contributed to NASA's continued spacecraft legacy: innovative engineering, transformative science, and extraordinary inspiration. to learn what's "there".

What's next

Voyager 1 and 2 are the longest-running spacecraft in history; 42 years after its launch, both continue to be strong and send back data as they explore the interstellar space. It is the farthest we have ever been pushed into space. And the spacecraft was originally designed to last only five years.

Dodd began work on Voyager in 1984 and remained on the project to see Uranus and Neptune meetings. Dodd will then work on missions inspired by information gathered from Voyager data. And now, Dodd is back at the head of Voyager.

Dodd's team of 12 takes care of both spacecraft to make sure the probes are healthy, safe, work well and not get too cold.

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Jones, who returned to help care for the spacecraft as chief engineer, describes himself as a "constant home call doctor" for Voyager. "You never know when you might need it," he says.

The Voyager Flyboys inspire orbital missions such as Cassini to Saturn and its moons, Galileo and Juno to Jupiter and its moons and future planned missions.

"I describe Voyager as the grandparent of the missions that have flown since," Dodd said.

However, no Uranus or Neptune missions were followed. If a mission were ready to launch right now, it would take ten years to reach Neptune. But nothing is in the works at the moment, though Voyager's intriguing scientific discoveries have given him a reason to go back and investigate further.

"We need to develop an orbiter for each of these planets," Dodd said. "In Uranus, the five great moons are very different. They have a unique geological history, so we have to understand how they formed or conquered. Uranus has a rotating pole that slopes more than Earth on its land, so we need to understand why happened. There are a lot of characteristics in Neptune in an atmosphere similar to Jupiter and Saturn. And the moon of Neptune Triton is of interest because of the methane geysers on it. "

When the Voyager spacecraft flies from planets in our solar system, they helped to answer no which questions as they create more, Ray said.

But missions to outer planets take longer, so the teams working on them know that they will probably only work for one or two of them in their lifetime.

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