When will the Voyager space mission run out of battery?

A telling clue to how long NASA’s Voyager probes travel through space can be found in the “high-tech” storage device the two exploration craft use to store data – an eight-track tape.

While readers of a certain age will remember the discordant sounds of the first popular portable music medium, those who missed that special joy were probably not around on August 20, 1977, when the first of the Voyager twin probes was launched. of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Voyager 2 was launched that day, followed two weeks later by the liftoff of Voyager 1. Since then, both probes have captured stunning images during planetary flybys and are now venturing into interstellar space, collecting and always transmitting new information to their home planet. .

Explore on borrowed time: No one is more stunned than NASA engineers that the Voyagers, originally supposed to have a five-year lifespan, are still operational, albeit at reduced capacity to reserve their dwindling power supplies. In 2012, the Voyager program broke NASA’s record for longest space mission.

Operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the two probes’ first destinations were Jupiter and Saturn, after which Voyager 1 headed for the heliosphere and Voyager 2 recorded close encounters with Uranus and Neptune. Both craft are now in interstellar space – a region where the sun’s constant flux of matter and magnetic field ceases to affect its surroundings – transmitting data that solves some scientific mysteries and unlocks new ones. In January of this year, Voyager 1 was 14.5 billion miles from Terra Prime.

“Today, as the two Voyagers explore interstellar space, they provide humanity with observations of uncharted territories,” said Linda Spilker, associate Voyager project scientist at JPL in a report posted on the website. lab this week. “This is the first time we have been able to directly study how a star, our Sun, interacts with particles and magnetic fields outside our heliosphere, helping scientists understand the local neighborhood between stars, reversing some theories about this region, and provide key information for future missions.

In case of alien encounters, drop the needle on this: Sounding a bit like the proud parents of overachieving children, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory points out that the Voyagers’ eight-track tape storage systems have about 3 million times less memory than modern cell phones and transmit data about 38,000 times slower than a 5G internet connection.

While the technology behind the probes’ data storage might seem a little dusty, their on-board “message in a bottle,” if any of the probes encounter extraterrestrial life on their travels, can be found on a recording relic. even older.

According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, each Voyager carries a gold disc containing images of life on Earth, diagrams of basic scientific principles and audio that includes sounds of nature, greetings in multiple languages ​​and the music. The gold-coated discs serve as a cosmic handshake for anyone (or anything) who might encounter the space probes, and include “how to play” instructions. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory says that at the rate gold decays in space and is eroded by cosmic radiation, the records will last for over a billion years.

The sound of silence is approaching: The Voyager probes are powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator containing plutonium, which gives off heat that is converted into electricity, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As the plutonium decays, the heat output decreases and the Voyagers lose electricity. To compensate, the Voyager team shut down all non-essential systems and some once considered essential, including the heaters that protect still-functioning instruments from the freezing temperatures of space. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory says the five instruments whose heaters have been turned off since 2019 are still functioning, despite being well below the lowest temperatures at which they have been tested.

NASA expects Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to run out of power — officially ending their decades-long missions — in the mid-2020s, according to UPI.

Once the probes die down, NASA says the Voyager spacecraft will begin its final mission – to venture deeper into space and serve as Earth’s “ambassadors” should they encounter another life form. .

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