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Keeping Voyager 2 Alive: Thrusters Fired Up for First Time Since 1989

July 16, 2019

In exciting Voyager news, on July 8th, NASA fired up Voyager 2 for the first time in 30 years. Why? To keep the Voyager mission running. Aside from the reminder that the Voyager spacecrafts are still alive and well, the act is important because it means that equipment is still working aboard the 42 year old spacecrafts.



The History of Voyager 2

Voyager 2 is a NASA spacecraft that has been in operation since 1977. Its mission: to study the outer planets. Although it was launched before its twin, Voyager 1, Voyager 2 actually took longer to reach the outer planets.

It became the first spacecraft to visit Uranus and Neptune, giving us the first crisp images of the two planets! In 2012, Voyager 1 passed into interstellar space (the area between stars) and Voyager 2 followed six years later in November of LAST YEAR!


The thing about this 42 year old spacecraft is that deterioration poses issues, especially as it hurtles through space at 35,700 mph (57,454 kph)! In 1989, after accomplishing its mission of taking photos of the outer planets, many instruments such as cameras and heaters became nonessential and were gradually turned off. In fact, only five essential instruments remain running: the Plasma Science Experiment, The Cosmic Ray Subsystem, The Low Energy Charged Particle Instrument, and the Magnetometer.

Turning Thrusters Back On

This past week, on July 8th, NASA turned on Voyager 2’s thrusters for the first time since it passed by Neptune in 1989. By turning on the trajectory correction thrusters, NASA can point the spacecraft in specific directions and ensure that it is able to transmit data as Voyager 2 continues to move beyond the heliopause (the boundary between solar wind and interstellar wind). The effort to preserve the thrusters follows Voyager 1 whose thrusters were also turned on in order to prevent degradation two years ago.

So what would happen if the thrusters degraded? Well, then they could not be turned on, and Voyager 2 would not be able to rotate in different directions. This means that the antenna that sends data back to NASA would not always be facing Earth at the right times, which is why it is super important for the thrusters to work. Otherwise, the Voyager mission would prematurely end after managing to survive for so long.


What’s Next for Voyager?


With fewer instruments running and as it moves further into interstellar space, it is becoming harder for the Voyager spacecrafts to heat up and there’s less energy to run on. Soon, they will stop working and they will live solely to carry the message, the proof, and the hope of Earth on the Golden Records to the most distant parts of space. But for now, it’s nice to know that Voyager 1 and 2 are still out there exploring and sending back information that allows us to understand more about our universe.



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