NASA starts disabling in-flight space probes since 1977

  • NASA is shutting down the Voyager probe systems this year, Scientific American reported.
  • The probes are faltering after 45 years – this decision is a way to maintain them until 2030.
  • Voyager 1 and 2 launched in 1977 made it farther than any other man-made object.

The epic interstellar journeys of NASA’s acclaimed Voyager probes are set to come to an end as the agency begins shutting down their systems, Scientific American reported.

Probes launched 45 years ago, in 1977, have since pushed the boundaries of space exploration. They’re farther from Earth than any other man-made object, a record that will likely stand unbroken for decades.

The decision to reduce the power of the probes aims to extend their life by a few more years, bringing them to around 2030, according to Scientific American.

“We did 10 times the guarantee on the damn things,” said Ralph McNutt, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, referring to initial projections that their mission would last four years.

The probes are powered by radioactive plutonium, which has kept the tiny on-board computers running for decades.

The energy in the system decreases by about 4 watts per year, according to Scientific American, which requires a reduction in energy consumption.

“If all goes very well, we may be able to extend the missions into the 2030s. It just depends on the power. That’s the endpoint,” Spilker said.

Saturn's rings are shown in false color in a photo taken by a Voyager probe in 1981.

Saturn’s rings are shown in false color in a photo taken by a Voyager spacecraft on August 23, 1981.

Nasa


The probes’ primary purpose was to fly past Jupiter and Saturn, a mission they quickly accomplished. Then they continued, sending back images of our solar system and beaming home readings from deep space.

In 1990, Voyager 1 captured the iconic composite image of the “pale blue dot,” a view of Earth taken 3.7 billion miles from our sun.

Pale Blue Dot_update

The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of Earth taken on February 14, 1990 by NASA’s Voyager 1 from a distance of 3.7 billion miles. This is a 2020 reissue.

NASA/JPL-Caltech



More striking photos taken by the probes are seen in the video below.

In 1998, Voyager 1 became the furthest man-made object in space, 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth.

The probes are now 12 and 14.5 billion miles from Earth and counting, according to a NASA live tracker.

It is beyond what is generally considered the limits of our solar system. Voyager 1 reached “interstellar space” in 2012, Voyager 2 in 2018, the first human objects to do so in history.

The instrument’s hard-wired electronics have stood the test of time remarkably well, despite its age.

The primitive computers on board the probes do not require much power. All of the data collected by Voyager’s instruments is stored on an eight-track tape recorded and sent to Earth using a machine that consumes about as much power as a refrigerator light bulb, according to Scientific American.

They have “less memory than the key fob that opens your car door,” Linda Spilker, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Scientific American.

an image shows the eight-track machine on which data is stored in Voyager.

Mission data is stored on this eight-track machine, which was state-of-the-art when launched.

NASA/JPL


As the energy on board decreases, NASA will have to decide which instruments will be powered.

After 2030, Voyager will likely lose its ability to communicate with Earth. But that doesn’t necessarily mean his mission will be over.

They both carry a “gold disc”, a 12-inch gold-plated disc that contains information about Earth.

This includes 115 images, greetings in 55 different languages, sounds such as wind, rain and human heartbeat, and 90 minutes of music.

Both sides of NASA's gold record aboard the Voyager probes are shown here.

NASA’s gold disc, aboard the Voyager probes.

NASA/Insider


It will be another 20,000 years or so before the probes pass the nearest star, Proxima centauri, with this time capsule of human life by Scientific American.

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