NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft recovering from glitch

James Marshall
January 30, 2020

Interstellar space is dominated by the plasma, or ionized gas, that was ejected by the death of nearby giant stars millions of years ago.

However, this maneuver didn't turn out as planned and one of the spacecraft's autonomous fault protection routines was triggered. Voyager 2 experienced a technical problem over the weekend and NASA is working to re-route the spacecraft.

The two Voyager probes, launched in 1977, 16 days before Cape Canaveral, Florida, are considered the most human-made objects on Earth, both of which have crossed the boundary of the solar system into interstellar space.

The space agency reported that Voyager attempted to make a scheduled maneuver on January 25 that normally involves the spacecraft rotating 360 degrees to calibrate its onboard magnetic field instruments. The error caused two software programs that consume a lot of energy to run at the same time and overloaded the power supply to the probe.

Operators at JPL have since managed to turn one of the power-hungry systems back off and switch on Voyager 2's science instruments again. Engineers are now analyzing data to figure out the status of the rest of the systems, to work out how to turn off the second one and return the craft to normal operations. They are powered by nuclear generators that use the heat from the decay of radioactive elements to provide energy.

Over the years since the spacecraft launched, it has lost about 4 watts of power per year. Last year, engineers turned off the primary heater for the Voyager 2 cosmic ray subsystem instrument in order to compensate for this power loss, and the instrument continues to operate. When the probes can no longer point their antennas back at Earth, we will lose communication with them for good. Voyager 2 is about 11.5 billion miles (18.5 billion kilometers) away.

Despite the fact that signals being sent to and from the spacecraft travel at the speed of light, they still take around 17 hours to cross the distance.

As NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory reports, commands issued to Voyager 2 have already been sent, but it takes almost two full days for signals to make the round trip, meaning that NASA won't know if the commands have "the desired effect" for at least 34 hours. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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