Astronomy Planetary science Solar system exploration

At Sci.News: Voyagers Mark 45 Years in Space

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NASA’s Voyager 2 probe lifted off on August 20, 1977, quickly followed by its twin, Voyager 1, on September 5.

The twin Voyager probes are NASA’s longest-operating mission and the only spacecraft ever to explore interstellar space.

Launched in 1977, both probes traveled to Jupiter and Saturn, with Voyager 1 moving faster and reaching them first.

Together, the probes unveiled much about the Solar System’s two largest planets and their moons.

This infographic highlights NASA’s Voyager mission’s major milestones, including visiting the four outer planets and exiting the heliosphere, or the protective bubble of magnetic fields and particles created by the Sun. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

Voyager 2 also became the first and only spacecraft to fly close to Uranus (in 1986) and Neptune (in 1989), offering humanity remarkable views of these distant worlds.

While Voyager 2 was conducting these flybys, Voyager 1 headed toward the boundary of the heliosphere.

Upon exiting it in 2012, Voyager 1 discovered that the heliosphere blocks 70% of cosmic rays.

Voyager 2, after completing its planetary explorations, continued to the heliosphere boundary, exiting in 2018.

The twin spacecraft’s combined data from this region has challenged previous theories about the exact shape of the heliosphere.

“Today, as both Voyagers explore interstellar space, they are providing humanity with observations of uncharted territory,” said Voyager’s deputy project scientist Dr. Linda Spilker, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to directly study how a star, our Sun, interacts with the particles and magnetic fields outside our heliosphere, helping scientists understand the local neighborhood between the stars, upending some of the theories about this region, and providing key information for future missions.”

“The heliophysics mission fleet provides invaluable insights into our Sun, from understanding the corona or the outermost part of the Sun’s atmosphere, to examining the Sun’s impacts throughout the Solar System, including here on Earth, in our atmosphere, and on into interstellar space,” said Dr. Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters.

“Over the last 45 years, the Voyager missions have been integral in providing this knowledge and have helped change our understanding of the Sun and its influence in ways no other spacecraft can.”

Over the years, the Voyager team has grown accustomed to surmounting challenges that come with operating such mature spacecraft, sometimes calling upon retired colleagues for their expertise or digging through documents written decades ago.

Each Voyager is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator containing plutonium, which gives off heat that is converted to electricity. As the plutonium decays, the heat output decreases and the Voyagers lose electricity.

To compensate, the researchers turned off all nonessential systems and some once considered essential, including heaters that protect the still-operating instruments from the frigid temperatures of space.

All five of the instruments that have had their heaters turned off since 2019 are still working, despite being well below the lowest temperatures they were ever tested at.

Recently, Voyager 1 began experiencing an issue that caused status information about one of its onboard systems to become garbled.

Despite this, the system and spacecraft otherwise continue to operate normally, suggesting the problem is with the production of the status data, not the system itself.

The probe is still sending back science observations while the engineering team tries to fix the problem or find a way to work around it.

“The Voyagers have continued to make amazing discoveries, inspiring a new generation of scientists and engineers,” said Voyager’s project manager Suzanne Dodd, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“We don’t know how long the mission will continue, but we can be sure that the spacecraft will provide even more scientific surprises as they travel farther away from the Earth.”

Sci News

An amazing achievement of human ingenuity and engineering design! Currently, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are about 14.6 billion miles and 12.1 billion miles from Earth, respectively. Times-of-flight for radio signals to reach Earth from the probes are about 22 hours and 18 hours, respectively. At their current speeds in their journeys away from the sun (38,000 mph and 34,400 mph) it would still take nearly 17,700 years for Voyager 1 to travel 1 light year. Since the Sun’s nearest stellar neighbor is about 4.2 lyrs away, interstellar space travel for humans remains heavily on the fictional side of science fiction.

8 Replies to “At Sci.News: Voyagers Mark 45 Years in Space

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    It’s wonderful that they have lasted for so long but it makes the point that the basic limitation on interstellar travel, given our current technology, is energy. Even if we can propel a ship at a significant fraction of the speed of light, it could still take hundreds of years to get to the nearest stars. What sources of energy do we have now that would last that long? Current atomic fission plants seem to last 50-60 years at best. And it’s not clean. I’ve seen estimates of 2000 containers of radioactive waste that need to be stored in a secure facility that will last for one million years from the de-commissioning of such plants. We don’t even know how to do that. And fusion technology is still in its infancy at best. So, much as I love Star Trek, Star Wars and Stargate, without a breakthrough in basic physics, we aren’t going anywhere beyond this solar system any time soon. As for SETI, I think they should continue to listen but the same caveats remain, who is going to use something as slow as radio waves for interstellar comms especially given how attenuated the signals would become over those vast distances?

  2. 2
    relatd says:

    Seversky at 1,

    Radio travels at the speed of light for relatively low energy.

    We are stuck on earth unless a faster than light drive becomes available.

    Energy is not the problem. How much food can be stored on a spaceship going to another star system? Alpha Centauri, the closest, is about 4.3 light years away. So a spaceship traveling at twice the speed of light would need over two years to get there. No good. Traveling a minimum of eight times the speed of light is required and 10 times would be better. So yes, a warp drive, or similar, is necessary.

  3. 3
    BobRyan says:

    Hydrogen is the future for travel. It is the most prevalent element in the universe.

  4. 4
    Caspian says:

    Seversky @ 1:
    Thanks for an interesting comment and observations.

  5. 5
    Fasteddious says:

    For a change, I agree with Seversky @1. If the spacecraft had enough energy, it could keep accelerating and thus get to Alpha-Centauri much quicker.
    I also agree that it’s great that Voyageur has lasted that long – way past its design lifetime. That is the benefit of careful and conservative design. The instruments hold up and keep working. The communications especially was not designed to operate from that distance, but by limiting the bandwidth and data rate, using error-correcting codes, and using the latest radio telescopes to minimize noise, they can still pick up the faint signals to gather operational and science data.
    However, the fact that 45 years is amazing, yet with a few failures and degradations, points out the limitations of our technology. Even if a space probe could somehow make it to Alpha in 200 years, it is doubtful that our technology could survive such a trip. Interstellar radiation, and non-zero failure rates will accumulate until something fatal occurs, ending the mission. No human advanced technology is design to last centuries. I love reading science fiction, but when they have untended technology still working – at all, much less properly – after a millennium, as so many stories do, it becomes unrealistic. Perhaps in future, there will be ways to ensure the technology lasts longer than a few decades.
    As for getting to Alpha Centauri, you don’t need many years of food for a large crew. What you need, in addition to better propulsion (to get there in a few decades), is some sort of human hibernation, and then you ship the rest of the crew as frozen embryos (along with some other lifeforms in the same state, and a big DNA library). Wake up the small crew from hibernation every decade, or when there is a problem the AI pilot and robotic crew cannot handle. At the trip’s end, you put the embryos, a few at a time, into artificial wombs to create the full crew over more years. Robotic lab techs and school teachers can raise up the babies with the help of the few human “grandparent” crew who survive. Sure, lots of future tech required for this, but this path seems more realistic right now than FTL drives or generation slow-boats taking millennia to get there.
    Always fun to critique – and to dream…

  6. 6
    chuckdarwin says:

    I remember how awe struck I was when in 2012 NASA announced that Voyager 1 was the first manmade object to leave the solar system and enter interstellar space….

  7. 7
    ET says:

    I have a tattoo of Voyager…

  8. 8
    Seversky says:

    Chuckdarwin/6

    I remember how awe struck I was when in 2012 NASA announced that Voyager 1 was the first manmade object to leave the solar system and enter interstellar space….

    Me, too. But I also wondered how long it would survive. I understand the density of gas and dust particles in interstellar space is very low but, given the speed at which it is moving, I wondered if the continual impact of such particles over tens of thousands of years would gradually erode it to the point where it broke up before it got to the nearest star in its path.

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