NASA begins switching off Voyager instruments after almost 45 years

Daniel Sims

Posts: 462   +18
Staff
In brief: The Voyager spacecraft were initially supposed to last only four years. Nearly 45 years later, they can still communicate with NASA from the edge of interstellar space. Now, the agency plans to begin sacrificing some of the spacecrafts' instruments to extend their mission even longer.

Scientific American reports that NASA is preparing to wind down the Voyager mission, which has endured for over ten times its original projected length. By powering down some instruments, engineers hope others can last into the 2030s.

The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft launched in 1977 on a four-year mission to photograph Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune along with their moons. Approaching their 50th birthday, the probes still operate after traveling farther than any others. Voyager 1 crossed what scientists think is the heliosphere – the interstellar boundary – in 2012, while Voyager 2 hit that landmark in 2018.

Each spacecraft still has a few functioning instruments, powered by a device that converts radioactive plutonium decay heat into electricity. It provides four fewer watts of power every year, so NASA has started preparing for the end by switching off some devices to save energy for others.

Two years ago, engineers deactivated the cosmic ray detector's heater, expecting the detector to die soon after in outer space's extremely low temperatures. Surprisingly, it kept working. The last components to go will likely be the magnetometer, plasma science instrument, and others. Billions of miles away, signals containing NASA's instructions, traveling at the speed of light, take the better part of a day to reach the Voyagers.

When they passed the solar system's outer gas giants in the 80s, photos from the spacecraft showed NASA for the first time that moons orbiting other planets could be very different from the Earth's moon. They never expected to see Io's active volcanoes or Ganymede's deep glaciers. Now, the Voyagers send Earth data about the outer boundary of the Sun's magnetic field.

In interstellar space, Voyager 1 and 2 will likely outlive the sun. As they directly orbit the Milky Way galaxy for millions of years, they carry golden records containing information about the planet they came from.

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Uncle Al

Posts: 8,774   +7,696
What really amazes me is that a program built and launched before this melenium continues to chug along, working just fine, yet today we can't even get a cell phone that will last and be supported for 10 years and so many of our freedoms (the latest being books in libraries) are being stripped away without even a wimper ..... go figure.
 

Endymio

Posts: 1,518   +1,459
Each spacecraft still has a few functioning instruments, powered by a device that converts radioactive plutonium decay heat into electricity....
These deep-space missions are made possible only by those Pu-238 "nuclear batteries", and yet every time NASA launches one, environmental activists protest, riot, and sue to block the launch from happening.
 

Lounds

Posts: 1,122   +1,027
What really amazes me is that a program built and launched before this melenium continues to chug along, working just fine, yet today we can't even get a cell phone that will last and be supported for 10 years and so many of our freedoms (the latest being books in libraries) are being stripped away without even a wimper ..... go figure.
Free Market Capitalism vs State funded space program.
 

James Ryan

Posts: 15   +16
What really amazes me is that a program built and launched before this melenium continues to chug along, working just fine, yet today we can't even get a cell phone that will last and be supported for 10 years and so many of our freedoms (the latest being books in libraries) are being stripped away without even a wimper ..... go figure.
This is by design. It's not that they can't produce more things like this. It's that they don't want to. If something works forever it ain't going to make much money in the long term.
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 7,706   +6,654
These deep-space missions are made possible only by those Pu-238 "nuclear batteries", and yet every time NASA launches one, environmental activists protest, riot, and sue to block the launch from happening.
:rolleyes: I know you like to dramatize and blame environmentalists for everything, but if you would have put an iota of research into this, you might have found out that the issue is more complicated than your vast oversimplification of the issue. https://www.spacelegalissues.com/nuclear-powered-engines-in-outer-space/
 

gamerk2

Posts: 697   +669
What really amazes me is that a program built and launched before this melenium continues to chug along, working just fine, yet today we can't even get a cell phone that will last and be supported for 10 years...

Plutonium is wonderous like that; it's energy density is insane.

The fear, of course, has always been an explosion at launch that scatters Plutonium throughout that atmosphere. Especially since Plutonium is an order of magnitude worse then Uranium is as far as radiation goes. That's why for most use cases Solar is preferred (obviously not viable for something leaving the solar system).
 

terzaerian

Posts: 1,273   +1,772
Plutonium is wonderous like that; it's energy density is insane.

The fear, of course, has always been an explosion at launch that scatters Plutonium throughout that atmosphere. Especially since Plutonium is an order of magnitude worse then Uranium is as far as radiation goes. That's why for most use cases Solar is preferred (obviously not viable for something leaving the solar system).
Or dusty conditions, or conditions where micrometeorite strikes are common (e.g. anywhere in outer space), or when the sun is occluded by another celestial body, or...
 

Endymio

Posts: 1,518   +1,459
:rolleyes: I know you like to dramatize and blame environmentalists for everything, but if you would have put an iota of research into this, you might have found out that the issue is more complicated than your vast oversimplification of the issue. https://www.spacelegalissues.com/nuclear-powered-engines-in-outer-space/
Oops! You've confused these RTGs (aka "nuclear batteries") used on deep-space probes with nuclear reactors, which are different beasts entirely. There are no "space legal issues" with using RTGs on such missions.
 

Aceseven

Posts: 315   +398
So if they put the batteries that are inside of the voyagers into a mars rover with better tech then that thing would probably...rove(heh) forever and not get ko'd by some dust I'd guess?
 

Endymio

Posts: 1,518   +1,459
The fear, of course, has always been an explosion at launch that scatters Plutonium throughout that atmosphere. Especially since Plutonium is an order of magnitude worse then Uranium is as far as radiation goes.
A totally inane, baseless fear. The Pu-238 is formed into a ceramic pellet, then clad with iridium, then clad with multiple ultra-high temperature graphite layers, then finally clad with an ablative aero-shell; all rated to withstand stresses many times more severe than even the worst launch explosion would generate.

Most people don't realize that the failed Apollo-13 mission carried a Pu-238 nuclear battery on the lunar module -- the one which didn't carry the astronauts home. The LEM catastrophically entered the earth's atmosphere at full speed and burned up, yet the RTG -- which did not have all the safety claddings described above -- did not break up nor release any radioactivity, even after crashing and sinking into the Pacific. NASA monitored the waters near the crash site for many years, and never detected any radiation release. There has been at least one launch-pad explosion of a mission carrying an RTG since then ... again, no radiation was released.

And, of course, even ignoring all the above is the fact than an RTG carries only a small amount of radioactive material. Plutonium is nasty stuff, true -- but compared to the countless quadrillions of tons of radioactive uranium, thorium,and potassium already on earth, it's a infinitesimal amount. If you live in a New England or Rocky Mountain state, carry a Geiger counter into your own backyard and see for yourself -- you'll find your own topsoil carries a heavy load of radioactive isotypes -- nuclear waste left over from when Mother Nature made the planet.
 

terzaerian

Posts: 1,273   +1,772
So if they put the batteries that are inside of the voyagers into a mars rover with better tech then that thing would probably...rove(heh) forever and not get ko'd by some dust I'd guess?
They're exactly what powered the Viking landers which held the record for longest missions on Mars, until that record was broken by the Opportunity rover, whose solar panels likely managed to dodge being choked due to the fact that it was on the move so much.
 

p51d007

Posts: 3,156   +2,656
Senior in high school when these launched. My how time has flown.
Worked in a television repair shop my senior year. Changing vaccum tubes
in televisions, 3-4 channels over the air, MAYBE 10-12 on cable.
 
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Athlonite

Posts: 319   +110
I was six when these launched and can remember watching the launch on our 1 TV channel at the time. I was amazed then and I'm even more amazed now that these two have lasted so long and are still doing the job they were made to do here's hoping they last a thousand years in and make it through the Ort cloud unscathed and carry on out into the Black
 

Inthenstus

Posts: 90   +119
This is by design. It's not that they can't produce more things like this. It's that they don't want to. If something works forever it ain't going to make much money in the long term.

Huh? Space research doesn’t “make money”. It’s for research.. the longer it last, the more data we collect.. the more we get out of the project..
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 7,706   +6,654
Oops! You've confused these RTGs (aka "nuclear batteries") used on deep-space probes with nuclear reactors, which are different beasts entirely. There are no "space legal issues" with using RTGs on such missions.
Opps. You must have forgotten about Cassini. Environmentalists surely shut down that mission, did they not? 🤔
 
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Endymio

Posts: 1,518   +1,459
Opps. You must have forgotten about Cassini. Environmentalists surely shut down that mission, did they not? 🤔
I did not forget. They certainly tried to do so:

Dozens arrested in protest of plutonium-fueled space mission
protesters -- October 4, 1997, CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- A Saturday protest against NASA's upcoming launch of a plutonium-powered spacecraft ended with the arrests of several dozen people....

...Hundreds gathered outside the fence surrounding the pad where the Cassini probe is scheduled to be launched October 13 for a seven-year trip to Saturn. At the end of the rally, five members of the group Grandmothers for Peace walked through the main gates of the facility and were arrested by Air Force guards..

Other protesters threw pieces of carpet over the barbed-wire fence, and about 20 people were arrested when they attempted to climb over....


AND:

Before it shed light on the workings of our planet, the Cassini spacecraft was marred by fears that it would kill everyone on Earth.... Because of Cassini’s plutonium power source, antinuclear activists in the late 1990s sought to prevent its launch through protests, direct actions, and lawsuits. ( Atlantic Magazine)
 

Bobbydpue

Posts: 329   +217
What really amazes me is that a program built and launched before this melenium continues to chug along, working just fine, yet today we can't even get a cell phone that will last and be supported for 10 years and so many of our freedoms (the latest being books in libraries) are being stripped away without even a wimper ..... go figure.
The Voyager program cost at least $865 million dollars and isn't designed as a consumer product or to make a profit from it's sale. Why would you expect a hand held product sold to consumers around the world costing much less than the price they are being sold to last 10 years?
How is being able to get a recently released book at a library a freedom? Is that the biggest thing you could think of as an example of losing freedoms? What freedom's have you actually lost?
 

Gmachine

Posts: 38   +52
Just like many things in the last century, they were built to last for a very long time. Stories like these make you wonder just how brilliant humans can be sometimes.. Sad that the generation that built it are in their final stages of their lives but look what they gave to the world. I salute the engineers and scientists of the world. Remarkable and invaluable minds.
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 7,706   +6,654
I did not forget. They certainly tried to do so:

Dozens arrested in protest of plutonium-fueled space mission
protesters -- October 4, 1997, CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- A Saturday protest against NASA's upcoming launch of a plutonium-powered spacecraft ended with the arrests of several dozen people....

...Hundreds gathered outside the fence surrounding the pad where the Cassini probe is scheduled to be launched October 13 for a seven-year trip to Saturn. At the end of the rally, five members of the group Grandmothers for Peace walked through the main gates of the facility and were arrested by Air Force guards..

Other protesters threw pieces of carpet over the barbed-wire fence, and about 20 people were arrested when they attempted to climb over....


AND:

Before it shed light on the workings of our planet, the Cassini spacecraft was marred by fears that it would kill everyone on Earth.... Because of Cassini’s plutonium power source, antinuclear activists in the late 1990s sought to prevent its launch through protests, direct actions, and lawsuits. ( Atlantic Magazine)
And so what if they do? It's their constitutional right to do so. So, would you prefer that we change the constitution so that such protests will not happen? Yet if that were done, it would affect everyone - not just environmentalists.

That time, they did not succeed. Are there any cases where NASA missions have been cancelled because hoards of environmentalists exercised their constitutional right, took it to court, and won? You tell me. I don't see any evidence that a NASA mission was cancelled because of such protests. And, BTW, I'm not taking your word for it. Provide a reference.

So is this some sort of unreasonable fear on your part that environmentalists will stand in the way of scientific progress?

There's an interesting "fun fact" about today June 22 - https://www.nps.gov/articles/story-of-the-fire.htm
In fact, that event helped create the EPA. Since then, I do not see any evidence of Cuyahoga river catching fire again.

Would you rather go back to those days since you seem to think that environmental issues are not worthy of the attention of humanity?
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 7,706   +6,654
They are preferable to the days that humanity's issues were not worthy of the welfare of the environment.
So, you would not mind roasting marshmallows on a burning river? ;)

Science concurs that environmental issues are a cause of human illness. The way that I see it, the welfare of the environment is an issue that most certainly affects humanity.

EDIT: Some information about the effects of the environment on humanity - https://online.vwu.edu/news/environmental-studies/how-air-pollution-affects-human-health/

A simple case of the environment affecting humans is humans wearing different clothes in different regions depending on the local temperature.
 
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wiyosaya

Posts: 7,706   +6,654
Plutonium is wonderous like that; it's energy density is insane.

The fear, of course, has always been an explosion at launch that scatters Plutonium throughout that atmosphere. Especially since Plutonium is an order of magnitude worse then Uranium is as far as radiation goes. That's why for most use cases Solar is preferred (obviously not viable for something leaving the solar system).
Interestingly enough, what @Endymio says about this has a basis in fact, even if the response was snarky.

From https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/09/cassini-protests-environmentalism/539865/
NASA has never denied that plutonium is deadly stuff. Rather, they assume the worst, and take extraordinary measures to ensure the safety of nuclear materials during launch, encasing the plutonium fuel in iridium, graphite, ceramic, and aluminum, and hardening the containers to the point where, even in a catastrophic launch explosion where nothing else survives, they would be unscathed. In fact, these power sources—which are not nuclear reactors, but simply heat sources for generating electricity, with no moving parts—have survived launch failures. They are so robust that after one rocket crashed, its power supply was plucked from the bottom of the ocean and used onboard another spacecraft.