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Saturn flyby, ecliptic plane, Voyager spacecraft, low orbit, gravitational force

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Voyager, name of two United States spacecraft, launched in 1977, designed to explore the giant outer planets of the solar system and to venture beyond the solar system. The Voyagers took advantage of a rare configuration of the outer planets. This alignment enabled the spacecraft to use the gravitational pull of each planet like a slingshot. As the spacecraft flew by each planet, its gravitational force hurled the spacecraft on to the next planet. As a result the Voyagers never had to rely on large on-board propulsion systems. Voyager 1 visited Jupiter and Saturn, while Voyager 2 flew by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, the solar system’s four giant outer planets. Only Pluto, a relatively small outer planet, was not included in the Voyagers’ tour.

Both Voyager spacecraft were launched from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, by a Titan Centaur rocket. The two-stage rocket boosted the spacecraft into a low orbit around Earth and catapulted the craft toward Jupiter. Voyager 2 was launched first, on August 20, 1977. Voyager 1 was launched on a faster, shorter path on September 5, 1977.

Voyager 1 made its closest approach to Jupiter on March 5, 1979, and Voyager 2 followed on July 9, 1979. Voyager 1 flew past Saturn on November 12, 1980, and Voyager 2 flew past on August 25, 1981. After its Saturn flyby, Voyager 1 continued northward out of the ecliptic plane (the plane in which most of the planets' orbits lie). Voyager 2 passed Uranus on January 24, 1986, and Neptune on August 25, 1989, and then flew southward on its way to interstellar space.


Mammana, Dennis L., B.S., M.S.

Resident Astronomer, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. Author of "Other Suns. Other Worlds?", "The Night Sky: An Observer's Guide", and "Star Hunters".

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