Text by Michael Bullerdick and Infographic by Julie Rossman
From twin satellites photographing the sun in 360° to rovers on Mars to a ’70s-era probe passing out of the heliosphere and into interstellar space, mankind has more than two dozen currently active spacecraft outside simple Earth orbit. We created this infographic to showcase where all Earth’s interplanetary explorers are today, and what they’re up to.
Since the Soviet Union launched the first space probe, Sputnik, in 1957, approximately 160 unmanned space probes have been launched by various countries, or those working cooperatively, to photograph and analyze the sun, the Earth, the moon, interplanetary space, comets, asteroids and planets in our Solar System. Most probes are designed to “flyby” or orbit celestial targets; however, several—such as Curiosity and Chang’e 3—have been designed to make surface landings and to employ mobile rovers to search for evidence of life-sustaining water.
We’ve identified 25 probes designated on “active duty,” meaning they are 1) en route to their destinations or have reached their targets, 2) are successfully conducting experiments, and 3) are still able to communicate with Earth. The farthest-flung of these are Voyager 1 and 2, twin probes launched way back in 1977 that managed to surpass expectations in photographing Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and their moons. With their primary mission complete, Voyager 1 and 2 are now headed out of the heliosphere (the region defined by the reach of the solar wind) and into interstellar space—more than 10 billion miles from Earth, and the furthest distance any manmade object has ever traveled.