When our laptop or phone batteries run low, we panic and try to extend the battery life by turning off non-essential features. Surprisingly, NASA’s million-dollar nuclear-powered space probes face the same issue and have similar solutions. NASA has managed to extend Voyager 2’s mission until 2026 by turning off non-essential systems.
Originally, Voyager 2 was scheduled for a complete shutdown this year due to a lack of power. However, NASA found a solution by shutting down one last system, allowing Voyager 2 to continue its mission for at least three more years. The probe is now using its last bit of reserve power from its voltage regulator, which under normal conditions helps prevent power surges. The conserved power is being diverted to its science instruments to collect data and send it back to NASA.
Voyager 2 is powered by RTGs (radioisotope thermoelectric generators) that convert heat from plutonium into electricity. As the plutonium decays, less power is generated. NASA engineers have turned off non-essential systems like heaters to conserve power and keep the mission going. Voyager’s project manager, Suzanne Dodd, said NASA had been monitoring the spacecraft for a few weeks, and the new approach is working.
NASA isn’t worried about potential power surges since the electrical systems on both Voyager 1 and 2 have been stable for over 45 years. The engineering team will monitor the voltage and respond if it fluctuates too much. Dodd added that variable voltages pose a risk to the instruments, but it’s a small risk, and the alternative offers a big reward of keeping the science instruments turned on longer.
Voyager 1 and 2 were launched in 1977, and the science mission to Saturn and Jupiter was meant to last only four years. NASA extended the mission and sent Voyager 2 to Neptune and Uranus, making it the only spacecraft ever to pass the planets. The mission was extended again, allowing the probes to continue their interstellar sightseeing tour. Currently, Voyager 2 is over 12 billion miles away from Earth, while Voyager 1 is about 11 billion miles from home.
Fun fact: Voyager 1 carries a “golden record” containing sounds and images of life on Earth. If extraterrestrials ever encounter it, they can get a sense of what Earth culture is like.