Voyager 1 just fired up a set of thrusters that have been dormant for 37 years. The aging spacecraft, first launched in 1977, is the fastest and most well-traveled spacecraft ever launched by NASA. It is also the first object made by humans to reach interstellar space, the vast world beyond our solar system.
The satellite relies on “attitude control” thrusters to orient itself so it can communicate with Earth using the Deep Space Network. The Voyager team had noticed diminishing returns on these thrusters since 2014, with the thrusters needing to fire up more often to give off the same amount of energy. To extend the life of the mission, researchers came up with the novel idea of reactivating the craft’s “trajectory correction maneuver” (TCM) thrusters.
The TCM thrusters are identical to the degrading attitude control thrusters, only they are located on the back side of the satellite. They also hadn’t been switched on since the craft’s encounter with Saturn in 1980 and had never been used for the purpose of orienting the craft for communication.
Still, the team though the TCM thrusters might suit their purposes, so on November 28, they decided to fire them up with 10-millisecond pulses to test if they could be a viable replacement for the nearly spent thrusters. The team was delighted when the results of their test were resoundingly positive.
“The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test,” said Todd Barber, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) propulsion engineer, in a JPL news release. “The mood was one of relief, joy, and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all.”
The TCM thrusters will officially take over for the attitude control thrusters in January, and the Voyager team predicts that the backup thrusters will add another two to three years to Voyager 1’s mission. However, the TCM thrusters operate with the use of heaters, which drain Voyager 1’s limited power, so it is not a permanent switch. Once their ability to utilize the backups is diminished, the team will switch back to the original thrusters for the remainder of the mission.
And Voyager 1 has enjoyed a storied mission, indeed. The craft provided us with highly detailed images of our solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter, in 1979, followed by images of Saturn in 1980. The gravity of one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, disrupted the trajectory of Voyager 1, so instead of flying by the rest of the solar system, the craft headed toward interstellar space. Thirty-four years after launching, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to travel beyond our solar system.
New probes, like the planned Breakthrough Starshot, could actually reach the nearest star after the Sun, Alpha Centauri, within 20 to 50 years. The biggest problem facing future interstellar travel isn’t getting spacecraft to the stars, but slowing them down enough for the craft to gather meaningful data from their missions. Scientists are proposing ideas to help in this arena, including magnetic sails to slow satellites once they reach their destination.
Thanks to the innovation of dedicated scientists, Voyager 1 can continue its mission, and each additional year the craft is in operation, it has the potential to deliver new insights into the world beyond our solar system.
Voyager 1 is the only human-made object flying outside of our solar system, and it’s still communicating with Earth by way of the Deep Space Network, which allows engineers to send it instructions. The probe currently uses its attitude control thrusters to make tiny corrections — firing for only…
Speaking as a space-loving child of the '70s and a music fan, it was hard to contain my excitement when NASA took to Kickstarter to fund a pressing of the space agency's Voyager Golden Records. Sent into space in 1977, the Golden Record contained sou… Engadget RSS Feed
We’re used to our tweets being sent to the cloud, but one lucky tweeter is having his tweet beamed through space to be archived on NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft.
Let’s back up. On this day 40 years ago, Voyager 1 launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. — 16 days after its twin, Voyager 2.
Originally launched to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, the Voyager spacecrafts completed their mission in 1989 and continued on to explore the solar system. Forty years later, they are still sending pictures back to Earth, from more than 10 billion miles away.
The twin Voyager spacecraft took some of the very first up-close images of planets in our solar system, like Jupiter and…
Captain James Kirk of the Starship Enterprise — er, actor William Shatner —read the winning tweet from Oliver Jenkins during NASA’s live event honoring Voyager’s anniversary. Jenkins, tweeting from the handle @Asperger_Nerd, wrote, “We offer friendship across the stars. You are not alone.”
The transmitted tweet will be in space along with Voyager 1’s “Golden Record,” a 12-inch, gold-plated copper phonograph record, which contains images and sounds of life on Earth, as a welcome message from humans on Earth.
According to NASA engineer Jeff Berner, the tweet will be sent into space from a 70-meter antenna outside of Madrid. Just 56 text characters long, the tweet was translated into 448 bits so that NASA could send it through as a Voyager command message format.
It took 28 seconds to transmit the tweet, and the message will reach Voyager 1 in a little more than 19 hours. So while the tweet won’t be imprinted on the record itself, it will join Voyager billions of miles out in space in the hopes that alien life might find it and respond.
It’s unclear how long the message will continue to travel into space once it catches up to Voyager 1.
NASA’s Voyager spacecrafts were initially launched in 1977, and 40 years later, NASA can confirm that both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are still functioning and making their way through space. Neither is showing any signs of slowing, and it’s unlikely they’ll need to be shut down anytime soon.
Everyday, the pair of spacecrafts send information back to NASA regarding the conditions of their current locations, which includes areas where our Sun has minimal to no influence. Voyager 1, which is 13 billion miles away from Earth, travels through interstellar space, moving northward out of the plane containing our planets. Voyager 2, meanwhile, is 11 billion miles away from Earth, and moving southward.
Both have seen a lot over the years, including Voyager 2’s flyby of the four outer planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io, an Earth-like atmosphere on Saturn’s moon Titan, and geysers of icy cold nitrogen on Neptune’s moon Triton. Voyager 1 was the first to reach interstellar space, and is currently the only spacecraft to do so, though Voyager 2 is expected to do the same relatively soon.
“I believe that few missions can ever match the achievements of the Voyager spacecraft during their four decades of exploration,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA Headquarters. “They have educated us to the unknown wonders of the universe and truly inspired humanity to continue to explore our solar system and beyond.”
Thanks to the two probes and their opposing trajectories, NASA scientists have been able to gather invaluable information on the heliosphere — the bubble of solar wind containing our system’s planets. When Voyager 2 reaches interstellar space within the next few years, scientists will be able to see how the heliosphere interacts with the interstellar medium from multiple locations simultaneously; this medium being a region in which the magnetic field is being affected by nearby solar wind. The existence of this medium was first noticed by NASA in 2015, three years after Voyager 1 made it to interstellar space.
Forty years ago, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions began their journey from Earth to become the farthest-reaching missions in history. In the course of their missions, the two probes spent the next two decades sailing past the gas giants of Jupiter and Saturn. And while Voyager 1 then ventured into the outer Solar System, Voyager 2 swung by Uranus and Neptune, becoming the first and only probe in history to explore these worlds.
This summer, the probes will be marking the fortieth anniversary of their launch – on September 5th and August 20th, respectively. Despite having traveled for so long and reaching such considerable distances from Earth, the probes are still in contact with NASA and sending back valuable data. So in addition to being the most distant missions from Earth, they are the longest-running mission in history.
In addition to their distance and longevity, the Voyager spacecraft have also set numerous other records for robotic space missions. For example, in 2012, the Voyager 1 probe became the first and only spacecraft to have entered interstellar space. Voyage 2, meanwhile, is the only probe that has explored all four of the Solar System’s gas/ice giants – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
Their discoveries also include the first active volcanoes beyond Earth – on Jupiter’s moon Io – the first evidence of a possible subsurface ocean on Europa, the dense atmosphere around Titan (the only body beyond Earth with a dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere), the craggy surface of Uranus’ “Frankenstein Moon” Miranda, and the ice plume geysers of Neptune’s largest moon, Triton.
These accomplishments have had immeasurable benefits for planetary science, astronomy and space exploration. They’ve also paved the way for future missions, such as the Galileo and Juno probes, the Cassini-Huygens mission, and the New Horizons spacecraft. As Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), said in a recent press statement:
“I believe that few missions can ever match the achievements of the Voyager spacecraft during their four decades of exploration. They have educated us to the unknown wonders of the universe and truly inspired humanity to continue to explore our solar system and beyond.”
But what is perhaps most memorable about the Voyager missions is the special cargo they carry. Each spacecraft carries what is known as the Golden Record, a collection of sounds, pictures and messages that tell of Earth, human history and culture. These records were intended to serve as a sort of time capsule and/or message to any civilizations that retrieved them, should they ever be recovered.
As noted, both ships are still in contact with NASA and sending back mission data. The Voyager 1 probe, as of the writing of this article, is about 20.9 billion km (13 billion mi; 140 AU) from Earth. As it travels northward out of the plane of the planets and into interstellar space, the probe continues to send back information about cosmic rays – which are about four times as abundant in interstellar space than around Earth.
From this, researchers have learned that the heliosphere – the region that contains the Solar System’s planets and solar wind – acts as a sort of radiation shield. Much in the say that Earth’s magnetic field protects us from solar wind (which would otherwise strip away our atmosphere), the heliopause protects the Solar planets from atomic nuclei that travel at close to the speed of light.
Voyager 2, meanwhile, is currently about 17.7 billion km (11 billion mi; 114.3 AU) from Earth. It is traveling south out of the plane of the planets, and is expected to enter interstellar space in a few years. And much like Voyager 1, it is also studying how the heliosphere interacts with the surroundings interstellar medium, using a suite of instruments that measure charged particles, magnetic fields, radio waves and solar wind plasma.
Once Voyager 2 crosses into interstellar space, both probes will be able to sample the medium from two different locations simultaneously. This is expected to tell us much about the magnetic environment that encapsulates our system, and will perhaps teach us more about the history and formation of the Solar System. On top of that, it will let us know what kinds of hazards a possible interstellar mission will have to contend with.
The fact that the two probes are still active after all this time is nothing short of amazing. As Edward Stone – the David Morrisroe Professor of Physics at Caltech, the former VP and Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Voyager project scientist – said:
“None of us knew, when we launched 40 years ago, that anything would still be working, and continuing on this pioneering journey. The most exciting thing they find in the next five years is likely to be something that we didn’t know was out there to be discovered.”
Keeping the probes going has also been a challenge since the amount of power they generate decreases at a rate of about four watts per year. This has required that engineers learn how to operate the twin spacecraft with ever-decreasing amounts of power, which has forced them to consult documents that are decades old in order to understand the probes’ software and command functions.
Luckily, it has also given former NASA engineers who worked on the Voyager probes the opportunity to offer their experience and expertise. At present, the team that is operating the spacecraft estimate that the probes will run out of power by 2030. However, they will continue to drift along their trajectories long after they do so, traveling at a distance of 48,280 km per hour (30,000 mph), covering a single AU every 126 days.
At this rate, they will be within spitting distance of the nearest star in about 40,000 years, and will have completed an orbit of the Milky Way within 225 million years. So its entirely possible that someday, the Golden Records will find their way to a species capable of understanding what they represent. Then again, they might find their way back to Earth someday, informing our distant, distant relatives about life in the 20th century.
And if the craft avoid any catastrophic collisions and can survive in the interstellar medium of space, it is likely that they will continue to be emissaries for humanity long after humanity is dead. It’s good to leave something behind!
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