Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2011 May 6
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Farther Along
Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech

Explanation: What is humanity's most distant spacecraft? Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 now holds that distinction at 17.5 billion kilometers from the Sun. That corresponds to 16 light-hours or 117 Astronomical Units (AU). This graphic shows the position of Voyager 1 relative to the outer solar system (top and side views) along with other distant spacecraft contenders. Next most distant, Pioneer 10 is about 15.4 billion kilometers from the Sun, though on the opposite side of the solar system from Voyager 1. Voyager 2 and Pioneer 11, both also well beyond the orbit of Pluto, are 14.2 billion and 12.4 billion kilometers from the Sun respectively. Still outbound for Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft is presently 3 billion kilometers from the Sun and will encounter the Pluto system in July of 2015. All these spacecraft have used sling-shot style gravity assist maneuvers to increase their speeds through the outer solar system. Voyager 1 is moving the fastest, escaping the solar system at about 17 kilometers per second. Still operational, both Voyagers are headed towards the outer boundary of the solar system, in search of the heliopause and the beginning of interstellar space.

Tomorrow's picture: dawn of the planets

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