Did you know...
...that the power from Voyager striking our deep space tracking antennas is 10-16 watts? A digital watch operates at a power level 20 billion times greater!
...that each Voyager spacecraft comprises 65,000 individual parts?
...that each of Voyager's tiny thrusters has a thrust of only three ounces? In the absence of friction, on a level road, it would take nearly six hours to accelerate a large car up to a speed of 48 km/h (30 mph) using one of the thrusters.
...that each Voyager used the enormous gravity field of Jupiter to be hurled on to Saturn, experiencing a Sun-relative speed increase of roughly 35,700 mph?
...that Voyager 2's fuel economy is 13,000 km/liter (30,000 mi/gallon) and rising?
...that the resolution of the Voyager narrow-angle television cameras is sharp enough to read a newspaper headline at a distance of 1 km?
...that the Voyager spacecraft travel approximately one light-year every 10,000 years?
The Voyager mission was designed to take advantage of a rare geometric arrangement of the outer planets in the late 1970s and the 1980s which allowed for a four-planet tour for a minimum of propellant and trip time. This layout of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, which occurs about every 175 years, allows a spacecraft on a particular flight path to swing from one planet to the next without the need for large onboard propulsion systems. The flyby of each planet bends the spacecraft's flight path and increases its speed enough to deliver it to the next destination. Using this "gravity assist" technique, first demonstrated with NASA's Mariner 10 Venus/Mercury mission in 1973-74, the flight time to Neptune was reduced from 30 years to 12.
While the four-planet mission was known to be possible, it was deemed to be too expensive to build a spacecraft that could go the distance, carry the instruments needed, and last long enough to accomplish such a long mission. Thus, the twin Voyager spacecraft were funded to conduct intensive flyby studies of Jupiter and Saturn only. More than 10,000 trajectories were studied before choosing the two that would allow close flybys of Jupiter and its large moon Io, and Saturn and its large moon Titan; the chosen flight path for Voyager 2 also preserved the option to continue on to Uranus and Neptune.
From the NASA Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, Voyager 2 was launched first, on August 20, 1977; Voyager 1 was launched on a faster, shorter trajectory on September 5, 1977. Both spacecraft were delivered to space aboard Titan-Centaur expendable rockets.
After Voyager 2's successful Saturn encounter, it was shown that Voyager 2 would likely be able to fly on to Uranus with all instruments operating. NASA provided additional funding to continue operating the two spacecraft and authorized the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to conduct a Uranus flyby. Subsequently, NASA also authorized the Neptune leg of the mission, which was renamed the Voyager Neptune Interstellar Mission.
Voyager 2 encountered Uranus on January 24, 1986, returning detailed photos and other data on the planet, its moons, magnetic field and dark rings. Voyager 1, meanwhile, continues to press outward, conducting studies of interplanetary space. Eventually, its instruments may be the first of any spacecraft to sense the heliopause--the boundary between the end of the Sun's magnetic influence and the beginning of interstellar space.
Following Voyager 2's closest approach to Neptune on August 25, 1989, the spacecraft flew southward, below the ecliptic plane and onto a course that will take it, too, to interstellar space. Reflecting the Voyagers' new transplanetary destinations, the project is now known as the Voyager Interstellar Mission.
There are several fields and particle instruments that can continue to send back data as long as the spacecraft stays alive. They include: the cosmic ray subsystem, the low-energy charge particle instrument, the magnetometer, the plasma subsystem, the plasma wave subsystem, and the planetary radio astronomy instrument. Barring any catastrophic events, JPL should be able to retrieve this data for the next two or three decares.
NASA Spacelink: Voyager - mission summary, lots of Voyager images
Voyager Project Information - very thorough description of mission
Voyager Project Home Page - detailed information, images, sound
* Picture credit - NSSDC
* This text was adapted from the JPL Voyager Project Home Page.