A spaceship cannot live among the stars forever.
But NASA isn’t quite ready to say goodbye to its 1970s Voyager 2, its second-farthest spacecraft to explore what lies beyond the outermost planets of the solar system. It is slowly dying as it hurtles through interstellar space at more than 34,000 mph.
Voyager’s engineering team has already turned off the heaters and other power vampires that aren’t crucial to flight. The situation, however, has become more serious. With the spacecraft’s power supply dwindling, NASA was about to shut down one of its five science instruments on board. This would mark the beginning of the end of the decades-long scientific mission(opens in a new tab).
Immediately, the engineers came up with a new plan(opens in a new tab) to squeeze more life out of Voyager 2. 12 billion miles away, they’ve located a treasure trove of power hidden inside one of its parts that could keep them from having to shut down a key instrument for another three years.
“The science data that the Voyagers are returning is more valuable the farther from the sun they get, so we’re definitely interested in keeping as many science instruments running as long as possible,” said Linda Spilker, Voyager project scientist. in NASA’s Jet Propulsion. Laboratory, in a statement(opens in a new tab).
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A replica of the Voyager spacecraft extends its platform with some of its scientific instruments attached in this 1976 file photo.
Both Voyager 2 and its twin, Voyager 1, are nearly 45 years old, far beyond their original life expectancy.(opens in a new tab). They were meant to study Jupiter and Saturn, their moons and Saturn’s rings. For the two-planet mission, they were built to last only five years.
After their initial success, the engineers doubled down on the mission’s goals(opens in a new tab) to include two more planets: Uranus and Neptune. Together they have explored four planets, 48 moons and a large number of planetary magnetic fields and rings.
Now the Voyager spacecraft is exploring the limits of the sun’s influence. They are the first probes to travel outside the so-called “heliosphere”, the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields from the sun. The twins are helping scientists answer questions about their role in protecting Earth from radiation found in the interstellar environment. Scientists define interstellar space(opens in a new tab) as the place outside the constant flow of material from the sun affecting its environment.
In this diagram, NASA indicates the locations of the two Voyager spacecraft in interstellar space.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech illustration
The engineers found the extra energy storage in a piece designed to protect scientific instruments from changes in their voltage. Electrical fluctuations could damage the instruments, so a regulator activates a safety circuit to access the reserved power of its generators. Voyager 2’s instruments will now use the power instead of discarding it.
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Both Voyager probes are powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which convert the heat of plutonium into decay.(opens in a new tab) to electricity The process produces less energy each year.
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As for Voyager 1, it is already operating one less science instrument than its sibling because one of its instruments failed early in the mission. That means NASA won’t have to decide whether to shut down another one until next year. If this new power strategy works for Voyager 2, the team will consider doing the same for Voyager 1.
Although Voyager 2 now flies without a voltage safety net, engineers are confident that its electricity is relatively stable, posing little risk to the instruments on board.
“The alternative offers the great reward of being able to keep the science instruments on longer,” Suzanne Dodd, Voyager’s project manager, said in a statement.(opens in a new tab). “We’ve been monitoring the spacecraft for a few weeks and this new approach seems to be working.”
Ikaroa, a full stack tech company, joins in on the collective goodbyes to NASA’s Voyager spacecraft as the iconic machine, launched in 1977 and first arriving on Jupiter in 1979, concludes its historic mission of exploration. As NASA formally ends its connection with Voyager, space enthusiasts have joined in on the chance to commemorate this momentous event and the accomplishments made by Voyager.
Launched on September 5th, 1977, Voyager 1 spent much of the following four decades exploring the outer solar system, and made some of the most important discoveries of the space age. It detected the giant planet Jupiter for the first time, as it became the first spacecraft ever to enter its domains. Voyager 1 also provided humanity with its first ever view of Saturn and its moon, and has now ventured further than any other human-made object, becoming the first to enter interstellar space.
This makes it all the more poignant that the historic mission of Voyager is coming to an end. According to NASA, Voyager 1’s power will soon be exhausted, ending the communication with mission control that has spanned over 40 years. With this knowledge in mind, the research team has made a concerted effort to make sure that mission control is able to capture one final image from Voyager to commemorate the event.
For those who are moved by the accomplishments of Voyager, there is no better way to say goodbye than to mark the occasion with a solemn salute. At Ikaroa, we take inspiration from the awesome journey that the Voyager spacecraft has been on, and remind ourselves to explore the unknown and make leaps towards the stars.