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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

NASA’s Voyager 2 Continues Science Quest With Revolutionary Energy Technique

NASA Voyager the Explorer

This artist’s idea exhibits NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in opposition to a area of stars within the darkness of area. The 2 Voyager spacecraft are touring farther and farther away from Earth, on a journey to interstellar area, and can finally circle across the middle of the Milky Method galaxy. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The plan will maintain Voyager 2’s science devices turned on a number of years longer than beforehand anticipated, enabling but extra revelations from interstellar area.

Launched in 1977, the Voyager 2 spacecraft is greater than 12 billion miles (20 billion kilometers) from Earth, utilizing 5 science devices to check interstellar area. To assist maintain these devices working regardless of a diminishing energy provide, the growing older spacecraft has begun utilizing a small reservoir of backup energy put aside as a part of an onboard security mechanism. The transfer will allow the mission to postpone shutting down a science instrument till 2026, relatively than this 12 months.

Switching off a science instrument won’t finish the mission. After shutting off the one instrument in 2026, the probe will proceed to function 4 science devices till the declining energy provide requires one other to be turned off. If Voyager 2 stays wholesome, the engineering staff anticipates the mission may doubtlessly proceed for years to return.

Voyager Proof Test Model

The Voyager proof check mannequin, proven in an area simulator chamber at JPL in 1976, was a duplicate of the dual Voyager area probes that launched in 1977. The mannequin’s scan platform stretches to the precise, holding a number of of the spacecraft’s science devices of their deployed positions. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyager 2 and its twin Voyager 1 are the one spacecraft ever to function exterior the heliosphere, the protecting bubble of particles and magnetic fields generated by the Solar. The probes are serving to scientists reply questions in regards to the form of the heliosphere and its function in defending Earth from the energetic particles and different radiation discovered within the interstellar surroundings.

“The science information that the Voyagers are returning will get extra beneficial the farther away from the Solar they go, so we’re positively fascinated with preserving as many science devices working so long as doable,” stated Linda Spilker, Voyager’s mission scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which manages the mission for NASA.

Power to the Probes

Both Voyager probes power themselves with radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), which convert heat from decaying plutonium into electricity. The continual decay process means the generator produces slightly less power each year. So far, the declining power supply hasn’t impacted the mission’s science output, but to compensate for the loss, engineers have turned off heaters and other systems that are not essential to keeping the spacecraft flying.

With those options now exhausted on Voyager 2, one of the spacecraft’s five science instruments was next on their list. (Voyager 1 is operating one less science instrument than its twin because an instrument failed early in the mission. As a result, the decision about whether to turn off an instrument on Voyager 1 won’t come until sometime next year.)

Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator

Each of NASA’s Voyager probes are equipped with three radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), including the one shown here. The RTGs provide power for the spacecraft by converting the heat generated by the decay of plutonium-238 into electricity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In search of a way to avoid shutting down a Voyager 2 science instrument, the team took a closer look at a safety mechanism designed to protect the instruments in case the spacecraft’s voltage – the flow of electricity – changes significantly. Because a fluctuation in voltage could damage the instruments, Voyager is equipped with a voltage regulator that triggers a backup circuit in such an event. The circuit can access a small amount of power from the RTG that’s set aside for this purpose. Instead of reserving that power, the mission will now be using it to keep the science instruments operating.

Although the spacecraft’s voltage will not be tightly regulated as a result, even after more than 45 years in flight, the electrical systems on both probes remain relatively stable, minimizing the need for a safety net. The engineering team is also able to monitor the voltage and respond if it fluctuates too much. If the new approach works well for Voyager 2, the team may implement it on Voyager 1 as well.

“Variable voltages pose a risk to the instruments, but we’ve determined that it’s a small risk, and the alternative offers a big reward of being able to keep the science instruments turned on longer,” said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager’s project manager at JPL. “We’ve been monitoring the spacecraft for a few weeks, and it seems like this new approach is working.”

The Voyager mission was originally scheduled to last only four years, sending both probes past Saturn and Jupiter. NASA extended the mission so that Voyager 2 could visit Neptune and Uranus; it is still the only spacecraft ever to have encountered the ice giants. In 1990, NASA extended the mission again, this time with the goal of sending the probes outside the heliosphere. Voyager 1 reached the boundary in 2012, while Voyager 2 (traveling slower and in a different direction than its twin) reached it in 2018.

More About the Mission

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of Caltech in Pasadena, built and operates the Voyager spacecraft. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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