NASA’s Voyager and Pioneer probes launched decades ago and are still there. Here is where they will end up.

An artist visualization of NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft.

Spacecraft that launched from Earth in the 1970s, and are still traveling on the path that led them outside of our solar system and beyond. In a new study, scientists have been predicting that the future of this spacecraft, the determination of which stars the vehicles will pass, and how close they will get to these stars are, within the next few million years.

On 2 March 1972, NASA launched the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, which would eventually become the first craft to travel through the asteroid belt. About a year later, Pioneer 11 took flight. And in 1977, NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft launched, the Voyager 1 following behind a few weeks later. This spacecraft, in addition to NASA’s New Horizons probe, the only spacecraft ever launched that are capable of reaching interstellar space. So far, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have broken through that barrier. However, if they continue, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 and NASA’s New Horizons craft are all expected to leave the sun’s sphere of influence, the heliosphere, and to further explore the interstellar medium.

Eventually, this spacecraft will run out of power and ‘die’; their science equipment will stop working, and they will stop communicating. In fact, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 sent their last broadcasts in 2003 and 1995, respectively. Although this craft can no longer send signals to the Earth, the researchers have found out that the stars of the vehicles will not be until long after they are no longer operating.

Related: How the Voyager space Probes Work (Infographic)

These calculations are tricky, because if these spacecraft to travel away from the Earth, the cosmos around them move, too. Coryn A. L. Bailer-Jones, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, and Davide Farnocchia, of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, found the spacecraft destinations with the help of the 3D-positions and 3D velocities of 7.2 million stars that were included in the second data release of the Gaia space observatory survey of more than 1 billion stars.

In the new study, Bailer-Jones and Farnocchia calculated that the next star that Voyager 1 will pass the Earth closest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri, in 16,700 year. However, this meeting will be unobtrusive, as the vessel closest approach will be 1.1 parsecs (pc) of the star, which represents 3.59 light-years — very, very far away. In fact, Voyager 1 is currently 1.3 pc (4.24 light years) of stars, so this encounter will not be much closer than the craft of the current location. (The earth, the sun is 1.29 pc, or 4.24 light years, the distance of Proxima Centauri.)

Voyager 2 and Pioneer 11 the following meetings will also Proxima Centauri, while the Pioneer 10 the next flyby will be the star Ross 248, a small star of 10.3 light-years from Earth in the constellation Andromeda.

These distant encounters may not generate excitement. But Bailer-Jones and Farnocchia predicted other future in the presence that the spacecraft will get remarkably close to the stars outside of our solar system. For example, Voyager 1 will be very close to the star RETAIL 3135-52-1, a star about 46.9 light years from our sun, in 302,700 year. The vessel will only be within 0.30 pc, just under a light-years — so close that the spacecraft could penetrate the star’s Oort cloud, which is a shell of cosmic objects around a star along with the planets, if there is one, Bailer-Jones told in an e-mail.

In addition, the researchers found that Voyager 1 swing close, within 0.39 pc (1.27 light-years), of Gaia DR2 2091429484365218432, a star, which is a whopping 159.5 pc (520.22 light-years) from the sun. To give you an idea of how close the approach is, we are 1.29 pc (4.24 light-years away from Proxima Centauri. She predicted that the vessel is in the vicinity of this secluded star in 3.4 million years.

Bailer-Jones told this research was inspired by the team’s previous work to trace the possible origin and future destinations of the mysterious interstellar object called ‘Oumuamua .

“It was mainly a bit of fun,” Bailer-Jones told “But it also reminds us how long it takes to get to nearby stars on the nature of the speed of these spacecraft have reached (around 15 km/s relative to the sun).

“It also emphasizes that the closest encounters, because they can be tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years in the future can be with the stars, not to the nearest star, the sun,” Bailer-Jones continued. “If we want to enjoy the nearest star in a human lifetime, we need to accelerate our spacecraft to much higher speeds.”

The study was published April 5, 2019, in the journal IOPscience.

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