The Most Distant Spacecraft In The Solar System
With the launch of Pioneer 10 in 1972, human beings have been sending objects into outer space. Five spacecraft have currently either reached or are very close to the outskirts of our solar system.
The vast majority of the probes have resisted their predetermined end by continuing to function much past the end of their designated missions. These probes were designed to investigate the planets in our solar neighborhood, but they’ve been quite busy in 2022 breaking new ground by leaving our solar system and giving scientists access to hitherto inaccessible viewpoints.
First and Second Voyager
This year marked a momentous milestone in the history of the Voyager missions: 45 years of service. These two spacecraft have made important contributions to astronomers’ knowledge of our solar system through close fly-bys around the outer planets and exploration of humankind’s furthest reach in space.
The first Voyager, in 2012, and the second, in 2018, both have passed through the heliopause, the threshold beyond which the sun’s outward flow of particles no longer plays a significant role.
It was a huge setback for the mission crew this year when the spacecraft started broadcasting jumbled data about its location back to Earth. The issue was traced to the spaceship making improper use of a defective piece of computer gear, which was fixed after engineers discovered the problem.
Nevertheless, accidents like this are to be expected on an aged spaceship. Each spacecraft’s power source is being carefully managed by the crew as the radioactive generators aboard become less and less efficient over time. This year, mission staff switched off heaters protecting several pieces of scientific equipment from the freezing space environment, and to everyone’s delight, the devices are still functioning as expected.
10- and 11-Pioneers
Pioneer satellites are remembered fondly because of their pioneering roles in space exploration. These seminal spacecraft, which have been in operation for 50 years, are currently inoperable; Pioneer 10 stopped communicating in 2003, while Pioneer 11 stopped responding to commands in 1995.
While we may no longer be able to control either of these spacecraft or fire their rockets, they remain as reminders of humanity’s existence in the solar system as they continue on their respective paths. Spacecraft, by their very nature, cannot be stopped after they have been launched on a route away from the solar system.
New Horizons was the last of these pioneering missions to be launched, in 2006. This spacecraft, which completed its historic flyby of Pluto in 2015, is already racing away from our solar system at breakneck speed and is expected to reach the heliopause in around 2040.