Spare a thought for Voyager 2.
The spacecraft, which has been in operation for just over 32 years reached a humbling milestone this week; 20 years since the closest approach to Neptune. On August 25th, 1989 it came within 5000 km of the big, blue gas giant, taking spectacularly beautiful ‘close-ups’ that Adams, Galle and Le Verrier could only have dreamt of (see pictures after the jump). Just 5 hours later, it made its closest approach to Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, which is spiraling in slowly to its eventual demise.
Voyager 2 is so far the only probe to have visited Neptune (and Uranus) completing the reconnaissance of our Solar System’s main planets. I was only three years old at the time, but thanks to the achievements of the Voyager programme, I grew up with books containing a complete set of stunning photographs and they inspired me no end. Every time I look through my old books, I remember not to take this for granted. Most of the planets’ discoverers lived long before they were seen up close and it is only through the hard work of many scientists and engineers that in the time I live, we have landed probes on alien worlds (Huygens on Titan, 2005), we’ll soon be exploring dwarf planets (Dawn to Ceres, New Horizons to Pluto) and we’re continuously discovering other Solar Systems of all flavours. I can’t help but wonder how exploration will have improved hundreds of years after I’m gone, and how the distant planets being discovered today might also be seen in close up.