May 30, 2023

Taylor Daily Press

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Clever ‘hack’ keeps Voyager 2 space probe running longer

The life of the US space probe Voyager 2 has been extended to 2026. NASA has found a way to drain power from a safety mechanism that is actually intended to counteract voltage fluctuations.

Like Voyager 1, Voyager 2 was launched in 1977 to visit the large outer planets of our solar system. Voyager 1 flew just past Jupiter and Saturn, and Voyager 2 also surveyed Uranus and Neptune.

Although both space probes only had a planned lifespan of about four years, they were still operational. Both have the heliosphere – sphere of influence of our sun – now deserted and now in interstellar space, gauging the conditions there.

Their long life is due to “nuclear batteries,” energy sources that use highly radioactive plutonium. Plutonium is unstable and spontaneously decays into lighter elements. This process releases heat which is then used to generate electricity.

The ongoing decay process causes energy generation to decrease over time. So far, this hasn’t affected either Voyager’s search program, as many non-core systems have been shut down in recent years.

In order to keep Voyager 2 running, one of the five gauges must also now be turned off. By now draining energy from the safety mechanism, this moment can be delayed for a while. If this “hack” works well, it could also be applied to Voyager 1. (E)

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