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]
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.
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