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Greatest Voyager Space Probe Discoveries
In over 42 years of space travel, the Voyager space probes have had a lot of time to uncover the mysteries of your Solar System.
10 – Io’s Volcanoes
In 1979, Voyager discovered that volcanoes can exist in some of the coldest reaches of space, far from the warm light of our Sun. One of Jupiter’s moons, Io, has a surface littered with active volcanoes and lakes of lava. Thanks to Jupiter’s immense size, its gravity pushes and pulls at Io like the Moon does our oceans. Instead of creating waves, Jupiter’s tidal pulls heat Io until its burning interior becomes too much to keep inside and explodes to the surface like a teenager confessing to their crush.
While the moon’s surface is minus 130°C, its volcanoes are over 1600°C — a phenomenon perfectly captured by Katy Perry’s 2008 hit single “Hot N Cold.” Some of these volcanoes’ eruptions can even be as high as 60 to 150 miles. Even 500 million miles from the Sun, Io is the most volcanically active place in the Solar System, having simultaneous eruptions and continuous volcanism from its hundreds of active volcanoes.
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9 – Europa’s Ocean
Both Voyager probes got a good look at another Jovian moon, Europa, and scientists were surprised at what they saw. The surface lacked the mountains, craters, and any other wrinkles that would show the moon’s incredible age. Instead, Europa had pimples and blemishes of crisscrossing cracks covering its face, revealing the surface to be that of an awkward teenager.
Ice had filled up the cracks where they could, flowing in from… somewhere. This meant 2 things. 1) Europa’s surface could move and shift — not quite like our planet’s tectonic plates, but similar enough. And 2) there was an ocean of warmer liquid below the surface the cracked ice was sliding across. This hidden ocean could hide all sorts of mysteries within its depths, which we still don’t know 40 years after its discovery. It might even hold the secret to the origin of life.
8 – New Moons
New moons aren’t just a phase we see here on Earth, and Voyager showed us that there are quite a few more of them than we’d thought in our Solar System. Both probes discovered a combined 24 new satellites: 3 around Jupiter, 5 Saturn, 11 Uranus, and 5 Neptune. In true astronomer fashion, most of these moons were named along the same conventions as their planets. From Thebe to Naiad and Prometheus to Pandora, they were given mythological Greek names to go with their planet’s Roman god counterparts. The sole exceptions were Uranus’s moons, which were named after Shakespearean heroes, villains, and fools. I guess NASA’s scientists are too many fans of the Bard to follow their own rules to the letter.
7 – Great Red Spot
We’ve possibly known about Jupiter’s Great Red Spot for nearly as long as we’ve had telescopes capable of seeing it. Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini had found a so-called “Permanent Spot” in 1665, but he didn’t know what it was. It was only when Voyager 1 reached Jupiter in 1979, 314 years after Cassini’s recording, that scientists finally uncovered this mystery dot’s identity. It was a giant storm 14,500 miles wide — large enough to fit 3 Earths inside. The spot’s been shrinking since then, however, and is only just over 10,000 miles long.
The storm rotates counterclockwise in a 14-day Jovian period (only 6 here on Earth) high above Jupiter’s main clouds. Its 270-425mph winds mean that it can be nearly 2.5 times faster than the strongest hurricanes here on Earth. While Voyager may have unlocked some of the secrets of this planetary birthmark, there’s still one major mystery left to uncover: why it’s red.
6 – Termination Shock
The reach of our Sun’s influence is incredibly large. Its solar winds — the electrically charged gas it blows from it at 700,000 to 1.5 million miles per hour — extend 7.8 billion to 8.7 billion miles from its surface. That’s 84 to 94 times the distance between our planet and the Sun. These solar winds create a bubble around the Sun known as the heliosphere. Beyond the heliosphere, past a barrier known as the termination shock, the winds slow dramatically as they first contact the winds of interstellar space.
When the Voyager probes crossed in 2004 and 2007, we learned something important about the heliosphere. It’s a bit of a misnomer. It isn’t a perfect sphere. Its southern pole is a billion miles closer to the Sun than its northern counterpart, which seems massive but is relatively small on a Universal scale. There’s also a second layer between the heliosphere and interstellar space, the heliosheath. By crossing the termination shock into the heliosheath, Voyager still had a long way to go before it finally left the Solar System for good.