NASA refuses to fire its aging interstellar explorer

A spaceship cannot live among the stars forever.

But NASA isn’t quite ready to say goodbye to its 1970s-era Voyager 2, the second most distant spacecraft to explore what lies beyond the solar system’s outermost planets. It is slowly dying as it hurtles through interstellar space at more than 34,000 miles per hour.

Voyager’s engineering team has already turned off heaters and other power vampires that aren’t essential to flight. However, the situation has become more dire. As the spacecraft’s power supply dwindled, NASA was on the verge of shutting down one of its five onboard science instruments. This would mark the beginning of the end of the decades-long science mission(opens in a new tab).

In no time, the engineers developed a new plan(opens in a new tab) to squeeze more life out of Voyager 2. From 12 billion miles away, they’ve discovered a hidden power reserve in one of its parts that could prevent them from having to shut down the main instrument for another three years.

“The science data that Voyager brings back becomes more valuable the farther from the sun it goes, so we certainly have an interest in keeping as many science instruments as possible for as long as possible,” said Linda Spilker, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Project Scientist. Laboratory, in a statement(opens in a new tab).


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Voyager replica extending its platform with science instruments

In this 1976 archive photo, a replica of the Voyager spacecraft stretches out its platform with some attached science instruments.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Both Voyager 2 and its twin, Voyager 1, are much older than their original life expectancy(opens in a new tab). They were designed 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 initial success, engineers doubled down on mission objectives(opens in a new tab) to include two more planets: Uranus and Neptune. Together, they have explored four planets, 48 ​​moons, and many planetary magnetic fields and rings.

Now the Voyager spacecraft is exploring the limits of the sun’s influence. They are the first probes to fly outside the so-called “heliosphere” – the Sun’s protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields. Gemini helps scientists answer questions about its role in shielding Earth from radiation found in the interstellar medium. Scientists define interstellar space(opens in a new tab) as a place outside the sun’s constant flow of material affecting its surroundings.

Voyager 1 and 2 fly in interstellar space

In this diagram, NASA indicates the locations of the two Voyager spacecraft in interstellar space.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech illustration

Engineers found extra power in a part designed to protect science instruments from voltage changes. Electrical fluctuations can damage instruments, so the regulator activates a backup circuit to access the generators’ reserved power. Voyager 2’s instruments will now use the power instead of putting it aside.

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Both Voyager probes run on radioisotope thermoelectric generators that convert heat from fissioning plutonium.(opens in a new tab) electricity. The process yields less energy each year.

As for Voyager 1, it is already running 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 rule out another until next year. If this new power strategy works for Voyager 2, the team will consider doing it for Voyager 1 as well.

Although Voyager 2 now flies without a voltage safety net, engineers are confident that its electricity is relatively stable, posing little risk to onboard instruments.

“The alternative offers a big reward for being able to keep the science instruments on longer,” Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd said.(opens in a new tab). “We’ve been observing the spacecraft for a few weeks, and this new approach seems to be working.”

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