Voyager 2 gets a life-extending power boost in deep space

It is not uncommon for NASA missions to far exceed their expected lifetimes and to be granted extensions after achieving their primary goals. The Opportunity Mars rover rolled for almost 15 years, instead of three months. The Saturn-focused Cassini orbiter, which NASA operated in collaboration with the European Space Agency, endured for 20 years instead of four. But the Voyagers will surely take the cosmic cake. If the Dodd team’s energy conservation tactic works, the two could reach the unprecedented age of 50, with a “broad goal” of reaching 200 AU around the year 2035.

But this will require sacrificing scientific instruments one by one.

Voyager 2 still has five working instruments: a magnetometer, a plasma wave detector, a plasma science experiment, a cosmic ray detector, and a low-energy charged particle detector. The first two only require about 2 W to run, and their electronics are in the body of the probe, so they’ll probably be the last to shut down. The others are housed in the boom of the ship, where it is very cold, and they use between 3 and 5 watts each, so turning each one off would buy another year of life.

interstellar space could It seems completely empty, but it is not: there are still solar particles and magnetic phenomena to study. “The further we get from the sun, the more interesting it gets because we don’t really know what we might find. And having two Voyager spacecraft is like looking through binoculars,” says Linda Spilker, Voyager project scientist at JPL. For example, astrophysicists expected that outside the heliosphere, the sun’s magnetic field would rotate slowly in the direction of the interstellar medium, and Voyagers would be able to track it. But they haven’t seen such a rotation yet, Spilker says, suggesting that models of magnetic fields need to be updated.

The spacecraft has also used its instruments to study interstellar material and to detect radiation of dazzling brilliance gamma ray burst in another galaxy last October.

Newer probe-based missions will take advantage of Voyager’s ongoing solar science. As early as 2025, NASA plans to launch the Acceleration probe and interstellar mapping (IMAP) to study the heliosphere. Voyagers are already outside the heliosphere, so measurements from the distant probes can be compared to those from the much closer new one. “Having the Voyagers out there during IMAP will be really cool. As we look at imaging with IMAP, Voyagers will also make valuable measurements locally,” says David McComas, a Princeton physicist leading the IMAP collaboration. He likens it to doctors taking a CT scan of a person’s brain to get the big picture, plus a biopsy to get detailed information.

Voyagers aren’t done yet, but they already have an impressive legacy. That includes NASA’s New Horizons probe, which glided by Pluto in 2015. Now, 55 AU from Earth, that spacecraft is probing the edge of the heliosphere with newer and better sensors than Voyagers have, and you have already taken pictures of objects. that had not even been discovered when Voyagers was launched, such as the moons of Pluto and a Kuiper Belt object called Arrokoth. “To all of us at New Horizons, the Voyager team, they are our heroes,” says Alan Stern, principal investigator for the collaboration and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. New Horizons is the only other distant human-made probe still in operation, and it could last until 2050, Stern says. The team is now looking for a new target for a flyby.

Inspired by the tremendous success of Voyagers, engineers are already designing concepts for next-generation spacecraft, such as those that could be powered by lasers and light sails and that could one day reach our interstellar environment faster and farther than the probes of the 1970s. What advice should they take from the long and healthy lives of Voyagers? First, Dodd says, it helps to have plenty of fuel and redundant systems, because even robust instruments eventually fail. And it’s important to pass on the knowledge, he says, in case the ship survives the generation of engineers who designed it.


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