According to Scientific American, NASA has begun to shut down the systems of the Voyager probes, which it launched in 1977.
The primary mission of the probes was to fly by Jupiter and Saturn, which they quickly accomplished. The Voyager probes kept going, sending back images of our solar system and data from deep space.
Some spectacular achievements
As well as being the first human-made probes to reach interstellar space, Voyager 1 and 2 have sent some spectacular images and data from our solar system’s planets and moons.
Voyager 1 even captured the iconic “Pale Blue Dot” composite image of Earth 3.7 billion miles from our Sun in 1990.
Controlling the probes from over 14 billion miles away
According to NASA’s live tracker, the Voyager probes are now 12 billion and 14.5 billion miles away from Earth, respectively. Because the probes are nearing the end of their 45-year lifespan, NASA will be shutting down the Voyager probes’ systems this year. Shutting down the probe systems will help keep the probes operational for longer. As the energy on board runs out, NASA must decide which instruments will receive power.
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory planetary scientist Linda Spilker advises that if ‘everything goes well,’ NASA might be able to extend the missions into the 2030s. It all comes down to power.
Extending the mission by powering down
The probes’ power has been reduced to extend their life by a few years. The energy in Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 systems is decreasing by about 4 watts per year, necessitating a reduction in energy consumption.
The tiny onboard computers on Voyager probes are powered by radioactive plutonium, which has allowed them to operate for decades. The isotope plutonium-238 has a half-life of 87.74 years
A record that will stand for decades
The probes were launched 45 years ago, in 1977, and have since pushed the boundaries of space exploration. They are the furthest away from Earth of any man-made object.
According to Ralph McNutt, a physicist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the probes have accomplished ten times their initial four-year mission goals.
Basic technology is being used for an advanced space mission
Despite the probes’ age, the hardwired electronics have withstood the test of time remarkably well with 45 years in space and counting.
The probes’ primitive computers don’t require much power. All of the data collected by Voyager’s instruments are stored on an eight-track tape recorder and sent to Earth using a machine that uses about as much power as a refrigerator light bulb. They have “less memory than a key fob that opens your car door,” according to Spilker.
The mission data is stored on this eight-track machine, which was cutting-edge when it was launched.
Carrying a message to Proxima Centauri
Voyager will most likely lose its ability to communicate with Earth after 2030. However, this does not necessarily mean that its mission is complete.
They both have a “golden record,” a 12-inch gold-plated record with information about Earth. This includes 115 images, greetings in 55 languages, sounds such as wind, rain, and the human heartbeat, and 90 minutes of music.
According to Scientific American, the probes will pass by the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, with this time capsule of human life in another 20,000 years. Will alien life discover these messages from Earth, and should NASA have sent them in 1977? Experts are now beginning to wonder if trying to contact alien civilizations is dangerous.
Feature image credit: Voyager probe illustration by NASA under public domain