Voyager 2 was supposed to be defunct decades ago but NASA scientists keep finding ways to keep it alive and gathering vital data. The spacecraft, launched in 1977, were only built to last 5 years but they are still functioning 45 years later.
The Voyager probes have been essential in mapping the outer solar system and providing insights into the oddities of outer space. However, perhaps Voyager 1’s most famous accomplishment was a simple picture of the Earth.
The image, nicknamed the “pale blue dot,” shows Earth from about 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) away. The Earth looks so small in the image that it’s little more than a dot on the screen.
Carl Sagan, the world-renowned astronomer and educator who pushed for the image to be taken, said this of the poignant image: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, has lived out their lives…”
How Did They Last This Long?
You may be wondering how 2 car-sized probes have been traveling so fast for so long without need of fuel or repairs. Voyager 1 and 2 both use small nuclear-powered generators called Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) that convert heat from decaying Plutonium-238 into electricity.
However, these generators have nothing to do with how far or fast the probes move. They were propelled by chemical rockets when they were launched and they don’t need any more thrust because they don’t really slow down in space.
One of the most fundamental rules in physics is the conservation of momentum. An object in motion stays in motion unless resisted by another force.
On Earth, forces like friction and air resistance push against forward momentum, slowing moving objects down thus requiring consistent application of force to overcome these forces. In space, there is nothing to counteract the conservation of momentum so objects mostly stay at the same speed.
So What’s the Problem and How is NASA Addressing It?
Even though the probes don’t need any fuel or power to move them along, they need power to use the onboard scientific instruments. For the majority of the lifetimes of Voyager 1 and 2, the nuclear-powered generators have supplied all the instruments and other necessary functions with power.
However, these generators slowly provide less power over time as the plutonium decays. To keep as many vital instruments running and collecting data, NASA engineers have been looking for ways to cut power consumption.
In 2019, NASA made an ingenious albeit risky decision to cut power to the probes’ heaters. They determined that even though the probes weren’t designed for the extraordinary cold of deep space, they would still function fine.
Recently, NASA made another risky move to use a reserve power source that was meant to protect the probes in case of a voltage spike. They thought that the risk of a voltage spike was so low that it was worth the risk.
These decisions and other smaller tweaks have potentially added years to the lifetimes of the Voyager probes. Even a few more years of lifespan translates to a wealth of valuable data from reaches of space that nothing made by man has ever explored.
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