NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, which has been searching the outer limits of the solar system for more than 45 years, is running out of power. But a new plan aims to keep its interstellar mission alive for at least another three years.
First launched in 1977, Voyager 2 has helped scientists explore distant planets and understand how the heliosphere — the bubble-like outer layer of the Sun that traps particles and magnetic fields — protects Earth from its volatile interstellar environment.
With Voyager 2’s power supply dwindling, NASA was about to shut down one of its five science instruments on the spacecraft. To keep it going, engineers actually sacrificed heaters and other non-essential parts that drained power. But engineers have now found a way to take advantage of the backup power from a safety mechanism that regulates the spacecraft’s voltage.
“This move will enable the mission to delay closing a science instrument until 2026, instead of this year,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said last week.
Voyager 2 and its twin, Voyager 1 (launched the same year) are the only two spacecraft to have ventured beyond the heliosphere.
Ed Stone, who was the chief scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before retiring last year, has spent more than half his life devoted to the Voyager program. He oversaw spacecraft making discovery after discovery as they explored Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
“What it revealed is just how complex and dynamic the solar system really is,” Stone told NPR in 2017. “Before Voyager, the only known active volcanoes were here on Earth.” Earth’s volcanic activity. Before Voyager, the only known oceans in the solar system existed here on Earth. Then we flew over another moon of Jupiter, Europa, which turned out to have a liquid water ocean under its icy crust. “
Voyager 2 is 12.3 billion miles from Earth and counting. Voyager 1, which is also facing an expiration date as it is also losing power, is 14.7 billion miles away.
Linda Spilker, Voyager project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, NASA is working to ensure that Voyager’s legacy does not end in slow failure, as officials weigh expensive and complex proposals from several groups for a new, long-term investigation.
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