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posted by janrinok on Friday July 22 2022, @09:49AM   Printer-friendly
from the heart-of-these-star-crossed-voyagers dept.

Imagine that you built something that even the most optimistic person thought would last 4-5 years, and yet almost 45 years later it is still carrying out the task of discovering the secrets of our solar system and beyond. And they, for there are two of them, are not quite finished yet. This is a remarkable story. [JR]

Record-Breaking Voyager Spacecraft Begin to Power Down:

If the stars hadn't aligned, two of the most remarkable spacecraft ever launched never would have gotten off the ground. In this case, the stars were actually planets—the four largest in the solar system. Some 60 years ago they were slowly wheeling into an array that had last occurred during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson in the early years of the 19th century. For a while the rare planetary set piece unfolded largely unnoticed. The first person to call attention to it was an aeronautics doctoral student at the California Institute of Technology named Gary Flandro.

It was 1965, and the era of space exploration was barely underway—the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, only eight years earlier. Flandro, who was working part-time at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., had been tasked with finding the most efficient way to send a space probe to Jupiter or perhaps even out to Saturn, Uranus or Neptune. Using a favorite precision tool of 20th-century engineers—a pencil—he charted the orbital paths of those giant planets and discovered something intriguing: in the late 1970s and early 1980s, all four would be strung like pearls on a celestial necklace in a long arc with Earth.

This coincidence meant that a space vehicle could get a speed boost from the gravitational pull of each giant planet it passed, as if being tugged along by an invisible cord that snapped at the last second, flinging the probe on its way. Flandro calculated that the repeated gravity assists, as they are called, would cut the flight time between Earth and Neptune from 30 years to 12. There was just one catch: the alignment happened only once every 176 years. To reach the planets while the lineup lasted, a spacecraft would have to be launched by the mid-1970s.

As it turned out, NASA would build two space vehicles to take advantage of that once-in-more-than-a-lifetime opportunity. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, identical in every detail, were launched within 15 days of each other in the summer of 1977. After nearly 45 years in space, they are still functioning, sending data back to Earth every day from beyond the solar system's most distant known planets. They have traveled farther and lasted longer than any other spacecraft in history. And they have crossed into interstellar space, according to our best understanding of the boundary between the sun's sphere of influence and the rest of the galaxy. They are the first human-made objects to do so, a distinction they will hold for at least another few decades. Not a bad record, all in all, considering that the Voyager missions were originally planned to last just four years.

Early in their travels, four decades ago, the Voyagers gave astonished researchers the first close-up views of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, revealing the existence of active volcanoes and fissured ice fields on worlds astronomers had thought would be as inert and crater-pocked as our own moon. In 1986 Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to fly past Uranus; three years later it passed Neptune. So far it is the only spacecraft to have made such journeys. Now, as pioneering interstellar probes more than 12 billion miles from Earth, they're simultaneously delighting and confounding theorists with a series of unexpected discoveries about that uncharted region.

Their remarkable odyssey is finally winding down. Over the past three years NASA has shut down heaters and other nonessential components, eking out the spacecrafts' remaining energy stores to extend their unprecedented journeys to about 2030. For the Voyagers' scientists, many of whom have worked on the mission since its inception, it is a bittersweet time. They are now confronting the end of a project that far exceeded all their expectations.*

"We're at 44 and a half years," says Ralph McNutt, a physicist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), who has devoted much of his career to the Voyagers. "So we've done 10 times the warranty on the darn things."

Engineering Voyager 2's Encounter with Uranus. Richard P. Laeser, William I. McLaughlin and Donna M. Wolff; November 1986.


Original Submission

Related Stories

Humanity's Most Distant Space Probe Jeopardized by Computer Glitch 14 comments

https://arstechnica.com/space/2024/02/humanitys-most-distant-space-probe-jeopardized-by-computer-glitch/

Voyager 1 is still alive out there, barreling into the cosmos more than 15 billion miles away. However, a computer problem has kept the mission's loyal support team in Southern California from knowing much more about the status of one of NASA's longest-lived spacecraft.

The computer glitch cropped up on November 14, and it affected Voyager 1's ability to send back telemetry data, such as measurements from the spacecraft's science instruments or basic engineering information about how the probe was doing. [...] "It would be the biggest miracle if we get it back. We certainly haven't given up," said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in an interview with Ars. "There are other things we can try. But this is, by far, the most serious since I've been project manager."

Dodd became the project manager for NASA's Voyager mission in 2010, overseeing a small cadre of engineers responsible for humanity's exploration into interstellar space. Voyager 1 is the most distant spacecraft ever, speeding away from the Sun at 38,000 mph (17 kilometers per second). [...] The latest problem with Voyager 1 lies in the probe's Flight Data Subsystem (FDS), one of three computers on the spacecraft working alongside a command-and-control central computer and another device overseeing attitude control and pointing. [...] In November, the data packages transmitted by Voyager 1 manifested a repeating pattern of ones and zeros as if it were stuck, according to NASA. Dodd said engineers at JPL have spent the better part of three months trying to diagnose the cause of the problem. She said the engineering team is "99.9 percent sure" the problem originated in the FDS, which appears to be having trouble "frame syncing" data. [...] "It's likely somewhere in the FDS memory," Dodd said. "A bit got flipped or corrupted. But without the telemetry, we can't see where that FDS memory corruption is."

[...] "We have sheets and sheets of schematics that are paper, that are all yellowed on the corners, and all signed in 1974," Dodd said. "They're pinned up on the walls and people are looking at them. That's a whole story in itself, just how to get to the information you need to be able to talk about the commanding decisions or what the problem might be." [...] "It is difficult to command Voyager," Dodd said. "We don't have any type of simulator for this. We don't have any hardware simulator. We don't have any software simulator... There's no simulator with the FDS, no hardware where we can try it on the ground first before we send it. So that makes people more cautious, and it's a balance between getting commanding right and taking risks."

[...] The spacecraft's vast distance and position in the southern sky require NASA to use the largest 230-foot (70-meter) antenna at a Deep Space Network tracking site in Australia, one of the network's most in-demand antennas.

"The data rates are very low, and this anomaly causes us not to have any telemetry," Dodd said. "We're kind of shooting in the blind a little bit because we don't know what the status of the spacecraft is completely."

Previously on SoylentNews:
Engineers Work to Fix Voyager 1 Computer - 20231215

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  • (Score: 0, Troll) by Runaway1956 on Friday July 22 2022, @10:37AM (11 children)

    by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Friday July 22 2022, @10:37AM (#1262264) Homepage Journal

    Look what the last generation did with 1960s technology. WTF have we done since that compares? THAT is why I cheer for Elon Musk, he's actually climbing up on the shoulders of the giants who preceded him.

    --
    Through a Glass, Darkly -George Patton
    • (Score: 5, Touché) by Thexalon on Friday July 22 2022, @10:54AM (9 children)

      by Thexalon (636) on Friday July 22 2022, @10:54AM (#1262266)

      WTF have we done since that compares?

      Sent rovers and a friggin' helicopter to another planet using a really innovative landing system that means we can and do land much more complex probes than, say, Pioneer. Launched a couple of space telescopes that have allowed us to see further away / further back in time than ever before. Maintained a space station in orbit for longer than ever before in human history. Put a whole bunch of satellites up there, giving us GPS and detailed maps of the entire globe.

      I agree, not as flashy as going to the moon and planting an MTV flag, but still significant achievements. Oh, and Elon Musk wasn't responsible for most of that - is was mostly the work of the various government space agencies.

      --
      The only thing that stops a bad guy with a compiler is a good guy with a compiler.
      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 22 2022, @02:35PM (1 child)

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 22 2022, @02:35PM (#1262285)

        It's also worth recognizing that this particular advancement either requires the literal planets to be aligned or a method of propulsion that remains elusive in order to accomplish. Yes, it is an impressive bit of engineering, but even with the best engineering available now, you wouldn't see similar results.

        • (Score: 2) by fraxinus-tree on Friday July 22 2022, @03:37PM

          by fraxinus-tree (5590) on Friday July 22 2022, @03:37PM (#1262292)

          New Horizons probe did quite a similar feat with less gravity assists (and more delta-v budget).

      • (Score: 5, Funny) by bzipitidoo on Friday July 22 2022, @06:40PM (1 child)

        by bzipitidoo (4388) on Friday July 22 2022, @06:40PM (#1262329) Journal

        Obligatory quote:

        “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

      • (Score: 2) by oumuamua on Friday July 22 2022, @08:04PM (1 child)

        by oumuamua (8401) on Friday July 22 2022, @08:04PM (#1262360)

        Sure these are great achievements but a lot of us were hoping for a world like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/For_All_Mankind_(TV_series) [wikipedia.org] a world exactly like Musk is bringing as soon as Starship goes operational.
        (which I have not seen not having Apple TV+ ... is there any way to buy one show?)

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 23 2022, @07:08AM

          by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 23 2022, @07:08AM (#1262454)

          {I think they're just past the pink pony aisle).

      • (Score: 3, Insightful) by tizan on Friday July 22 2022, @09:21PM (1 child)

        by tizan (3245) on Friday July 22 2022, @09:21PM (#1262387)

        Indeed...quite a few space telescopes (Many of x-rays and gamma rays ones e.g Chandra). We have an observatory nearly touching the sun's surface !

        Remember the probe that descended on Titan and got us the discovery of methane oceans !

        Voyagers were the pioneers but boy compare the images and results that was gotten by more modern missions like Cassini and Juno.

        Musk who ?

        No private company is going to invest in pure science anymore ...the days of Bell lab etc ...is gone for ever.

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 23 2022, @07:14AM

          by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 23 2022, @07:14AM (#1262455)

          > No private company is going to invest in pure science anymore ...the days of Bell lab etc ...is gone for ever.

          Steady on. Neoliberism is a thing but it's not THE thing. Plenty of people don't value things solely on their net worth. Just like Freedom(tm), maintaining the human spirit ain't free. It has a value, in other words.

      • (Score: 2, Insightful) by khallow on Saturday July 23 2022, @12:45AM

        by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Saturday July 23 2022, @12:45AM (#1262420) Journal

        Sent rovers and a friggin' helicopter to another planet using a really innovative landing system that means we can and do land much more complex probes than, say, Pioneer. Launched a couple of space telescopes that have allowed us to see further away / further back in time than ever before. Maintained a space station in orbit for longer than ever before in human history. Put a whole bunch of satellites up there, giving us GPS and detailed maps of the entire globe.

        Now look at the price tag. Basically that not very impressive list is about two trillion dollars maybe more (not sure I'm including enough inflation), counting NASA, DoD, and relevant funding from other countries. When SpaceX gets its Spaceship-Superheavy combo flying for real, they will have spent around a thousandth of that, maybe a little more with the Falcon 1/9 development tossed in.

        There's a reason that SpaceX is a game changer.

    • (Score: -1, Troll) by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 22 2022, @03:34PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 22 2022, @03:34PM (#1262290)

      WTF have we done since that compares?

      Must've been quite comfy living under that rock of yours for so long.
      I wonder though why did you get out?
      What, your daily dose of Russian propaganda got you so excited you couldn't stay put anymore?

  • (Score: 4, Informative) by AnonTechie on Friday July 22 2022, @10:44AM

    by AnonTechie (2275) on Friday July 22 2022, @10:44AM (#1262265) Journal

    A well made and informative documentary on Voyager spacecraft:

    THE FARTHEST tells the captivating tales of the people and events behind one of humanity’s greatest achievements in exploration: NASA’s Voyager mission

    https://www.pbs.org/the-farthest/ [pbs.org]

    More info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Farthest [wikipedia.org]

    --
    Albert Einstein - "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."
  • (Score: 5, Funny) by coolgopher on Friday July 22 2022, @12:48PM (2 children)

    by coolgopher (1157) on Friday July 22 2022, @12:48PM (#1262274)

    They are the first human-made objects to do so, a distinction they will hold for at least another few decades

    I don't see how they could possibly lose the distinction of being first unless there's some time travel incoming...

    • (Score: 2, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 22 2022, @02:16PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 22 2022, @02:16PM (#1262281)

      Hey, use the spoiler alert tags! Some of us might want to be surprised.

    • (Score: 4, Informative) by Freeman on Friday July 22 2022, @03:39PM

      by Freeman (732) on Friday July 22 2022, @03:39PM (#1262294) Journal

      Yes, they are the first to do so. There are at least 3 other craft that will follow after them "soon". The article could have been worded better, though.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_10 [wikipedia.org]
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_11 [wikipedia.org]
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Horizons [wikipedia.org]

      New Horizons has been called "the fastest spacecraft ever launched"[6] because it left Earth at 16.26 kilometers per second (58,536 km/h; 36,373 mph).[7][8] It is also the first spacecraft launched directly into a solar escape trajectory, which requires an approximate speed while near Earth of 16.5 km/s (59,000 km/h; 37,000 mph),[b] plus additional delta-v to cover air and gravity drag, all to be provided by the launch vehicle.

      However, it is not the fastest spacecraft to leave the Solar System. As of January 2018, this record is held by Voyager 1, traveling at 16.985 km/s (61,146 km/h; 37,994 mph) relative to the Sun.[152] Voyager 1 attained greater hyperbolic excess velocity than New Horizons due to gravity assists by Jupiter and Saturn. When New Horizons reaches the distance of 100 AU, it will be travelling at about 13 km/s (47,000 km/h; 29,000 mph), around 4 km/s (14,000 km/h; 8,900 mph) slower than Voyager 1 at that distance.[219] The Parker Solar Probe can also be measured as the fastest object, because of its orbital speed relative to the Sun at perihelion: 95.3 km/s (343,000 km/h; 213,000 mph).[c] Because it remains in solar orbit, its specific orbital energy relative to the Sun is lower than New Horizons and other artificial objects escaping the Solar System.

      New Horizons' Star 48B third stage is also on a hyperbolic escape trajectory from the Solar System, and reached Jupiter before the New Horizons spacecraft; it was expected to cross Pluto's orbit on October 15, 2015.[220] Because it was not in controlled flight, it did not receive the correct gravity assist, and passed within 200 million km (120 million mi) of Pluto.[220] The Centaur second stage did not achieve solar escape velocity, and remains in a heliocentric orbit.[221][c]

      --
      Joshua 1:9 "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee"
  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by Rosco P. Coltrane on Friday July 22 2022, @03:37PM (3 children)

    by Rosco P. Coltrane (4757) on Friday July 22 2022, @03:37PM (#1262291)

    I remember the voyager spacecrafts go up into space when I was a kid, then I marveled at the images they sent back as a teenager, then I marveled at their crossing into interstellar space as an adult. And all that time right up now, at the twilight of my life, I've marveled at their still being powered on, still doing good science and still talking to us. Those machines are true survivors, a tribute to brilliant and inspired engineering, the like of which we have precious little nowadays.

    Those devices have been alive almost as long as I have. And now, finally, at long last, the survivor is dying, and a small part of me is dying with it. Like losing a close friend.

    • (Score: 4, Funny) by kazzie on Friday July 22 2022, @05:24PM

      by kazzie (5309) on Friday July 22 2022, @05:24PM (#1262316)

      But there's an honourable mention for https://xkcd.com/695/ [xkcd.com]

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 23 2022, @07:26AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 23 2022, @07:26AM (#1262456)

      The voyagers have been an inspiration showing people they can work far beyond their anticipated retirement age serving the ambitions of the intellectual elite. Perhaps we can direct the JWDT at them and watch them tirelessly chase the dream of crossing interstellar space.

    • (Score: 2) by bzipitidoo on Saturday July 23 2022, @02:15PM

      by bzipitidoo (4388) on Saturday July 23 2022, @02:15PM (#1262484) Journal

      Oddly? Why, yes, I have my own anecdote that's kind of odd.

      I was a young college student when Voyager 2 flew past Uranus. I was hurrying back to the dorms to catch the reporting about this event on the national news, when a young woman fell in beside me and asked me what I was doing. I said "I'm going to see Uranus tonight!" She did NOT give me her phone number and I never saw her again. Evidently she didn't keep up with astronomy.

      So often in matters of love, it feels like everything is against you. The jokes about the name were still pretty new then, and I was among the last to hear about it, since I paid attention to scientific advance, and not pop culture.

      Years later, that Apple computer is named after a healthy fruit proved a real help in getting a kid to try and like apples. Introduced the kid to a classic game, Beneath Apple Manor, in which the ultimate goal is to obtain the fabled Golden Apple. I couldn't find Golden Delicious apples at the grocery, but the Opal variety proved to be a excellent stand in.

  • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 22 2022, @06:53PM (4 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 22 2022, @06:53PM (#1262336)

    Kind of depressing--these things started in my childhood and I'm AARP age now. But the bright side is that we're capable of doing some amazing things when we put our minds to it. To think that something could be built that runs so long in such a harsh environment. What's to look forward too? It's depressing that for more than half my expected lifespan these things have gotten only what, about a light-day away from Earth? What's to look forward to? The tech that will whiz some future probe by these things, making perhaps a light-day in one year. That seems like an achievable goal in my lifetime. Depressing that propulsion technology seems to be kind of stagnant. Exciting that it doesn't have to stagnate indefinitely. Sometimes things go in leaps and bounds. These probes were a leap, and that's most decidedly not depressing.

    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 22 2022, @07:20PM (3 children)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 22 2022, @07:20PM (#1262353)

      I always marvel at the pictures like the Hubble deep field, or especially the initial JWST released image. To think that such a very tiny section of the sky has an almost uncountable number of galaxies, not just stars, and to think of how many stars are in each galaxy. Then to realize that all but maybe our closest neighbor star is unreachable to us in a lifetime, and what a piddly distance away that is, that we have no hope in imagining how big space is, how many worlds there are out there, and I am a firm believer in this, how much intelligent life there is out there. Then to think that the only way we will ever know one another is through some exploit in some major part of physics that has remained unknown to us that allows us to cross such distances. We are tiny and we are destined to be alone, but we've got each other, and I hope that someday we will realize that and get along with each other better than we do now, or have done for the last number of thousands of years.

      • (Score: 2) by acid andy on Saturday July 23 2022, @02:05AM (2 children)

        by acid andy (1683) on Saturday July 23 2022, @02:05AM (#1262433) Homepage Journal

        All I can say to that is amen.

        --
        If a cat has kittens, does a rat have rittens, a bat bittens and a mat mittens?
        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 23 2022, @07:30AM (1 child)

          by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 23 2022, @07:30AM (#1262457)

          That's all you can say? How about the line:

          > to realize that all but maybe our closest neighbor star is unreachable to us in a lifetime

          Isn't that the Universe giving us a clue? Don't go there.

          • (Score: 2) by acid andy on Saturday July 23 2022, @09:53AM

            by acid andy (1683) on Saturday July 23 2022, @09:53AM (#1262468) Homepage Journal

            It gives us a clue that just as we could spend countless lifetimes attempting to travel to the most distant stars, we can also spend countless lifetimes exploring what is right here in our vicinity; we just need to engineer and preserve a genuinely sustainable future for such lifetimes for as long as possible.

            --
            If a cat has kittens, does a rat have rittens, a bat bittens and a mat mittens?
  • (Score: 5, Funny) by hendrikboom on Friday July 22 2022, @08:38PM

    by hendrikboom (1125) on Friday July 22 2022, @08:38PM (#1262367) Homepage Journal

    would last 4-5 years, and yet almost 45 years

    Evidently someone accidentally stuck a dash between the 4 and the 5 in the original estimate.

  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by gznork26 on Friday July 22 2022, @09:27PM

    by gznork26 (1159) on Friday July 22 2022, @09:27PM (#1262389) Homepage Journal

    Despite my having washed out of a Space Technology program earlier in my career, and courtesy of a lead from a friend on a software contract in Los Angeles, my wife and I both managed to get software contracts working on NASA/JPL's Deep Space Network during the run-up to Voyager 2's encounter with Saturn. Because of the round-trip light time delay in communications with the spacecraft, when it was time for the pictures to start slowly streaming in, there was nothing to do but watch the monitors while the mission scientists announced what each incoming image ought to be, assuming that all the calculations had been correct.

    That accomplishment was the culmination of the effort of many teams, of people in all kinds of specialties, all doing something that had never been accomplished before. That life was the antithesis of the Internet's break-it-fast-with-public-betas approach. And I have to wonder how many people today can even imagine going out on a limb like that and staking the work of so many others on your bit of it being done right. Even so, the engineers of the time made sure that even the worst-case scenarios had a Plan-B, a slow and laborious way to re-program the machine code driving the craft. It was on the basis of that level of planning that the Voyagers have been able to survive this long.

    If and when people ever follow in Voyager's footsteps, it will be a far different kind of adventure.

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