Most Distant Human-Made Object

In 1895, Italian inventor and electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) produced the first human-made radio waves capable of traveling beyond the Earth, so radio evidence of the existence of human civilization has now traveled 128 light years from Earth. Assuming a stellar number density in the solar neighborhood of (7.99 ± 0.11) × 10−2 stars per cubic parsec1, Earth’s radio emissions have already reached about 20,000 star systems.

The most distant physical human-made object, however, is the Voyager 1 spacecraft, now over 160 AU from the solar system barycenter (SSB), a distance of almost 15 billion miles. That certainly sounds impressive by human standards, but that is only 0.0025 light years. As the distance of Voyager 1 from the solar system barycenter is constantly increasing, you’ll want to visit JPL Horizons to get up-to-date information using the settings below for your date range of interest. Delta gives the distance from the SSB to the Voyager 1 spacecraft in astronomical units (AU).

This still-functioning spacecraft that was launched on September 5, 1977, flew by Jupiter on March 5, 1979, and flew by Saturn on November 12, 1980, is now heading into interstellar space in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, near the Ophiuchus/Hercules border.

Given Voyager 1’s current distance (from Earth), a radio signal from Earth traveling at the speed of light would take 22 hours and 8 minutes to reach Voyager 1, and the response from Voyager 1 back to Earth another 22 hours and 8 minutes. So, when engineers send a command to Voyager 1, they won’t know for another 44 hours and 16 minutes (almost 2 days) whether Voyager 1 successfully executed the command. Patience is indeed a virtue!

Thanks to three onboard radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs)2, Voyager 1 should be able to continue to operate in the bone-chilling cold of deep space until at least 2025.

In about 50,000 years, Voyager 1 will be at a distance comparable to the nearest stars.

1The Fifth Catalogue of Nearby Stars (CNS5)
Alex Golovin, Sabine Reffert, Andreas Just, Stefan Jordan, Akash Vani, Hartmut Jahreiß, A&A 670 A19 (2023), DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/202244250

2At launch, the Voyager 1 RTGs contained a total of about 4.5 kg of plutonium-238, generating 390W of electricity.

BepiColombo Passes Earth

The BepiColombo spacecraft flew by the Earth last night, the first of nine gravity-assist maneuvers it will make to slow it down so that it can go into orbit around the planet Mercury on 5 December 2025. This was the only Earth gravity assist. There will be a Venus flyby later this year and next year, and six Mercury flybys from 2021-2025.

BepiColombo passed 7,877 miles over the South Atlantic Ocean at 0425 UT on 10 April 2020 at its closest approach to Earth, and I was able to image it from my backyard observatory in Dodgeville, Wisconsin at 0600 UT at a distance (range) of 21,760 miles.

BepiColombo passing through the constellation Crater 10 Apr 2020 0600 UT as seen from Dodgeville, WI

North is up and East to the left in the video frame, so BepiColombo is moving in a northwesterly direction. The two stars in the field are 3UC 145-134561 (12.2m, north) and 3UC 144-138354 (12.7m, south). The predicted equatorial coordinates (epoch of date) at 0600 UT from JPL Horizons were α = 11h 38m 03.90s, δ = -18° 08′ 25.4″. Please note when using JPL Horizons to generate ephemerides for spacecraft and minor planets passing close to the Earth that you should use the ICRF coordinates (astrometric) and not the apparent coordinates. They can be significantly different!

The integration time in the video above is 7.5 frames per second, or 0.13 second per frame. The field size is 17 x 11 arcminutes.

Here’s the video light curve of BepiColombo as it passed through the field. It was fairly constant in brightness with no obvious variability amidst the noisy measurements.