NASA is working on a software update aimed at protecting thrusters from harmful buildup, ensuring that the Voyager spacecraft can continue exploring space for another five years.
The twin spacecraft – Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 – have traveled more than 15 billion and 12 billion miles from Earth, respectively.
The Voyager mission was originally scheduled to last only four years, sending both probes past Saturn and Jupiter. However, it was extended to reach Uranus and Neptune, which it did in 1989. Since then, the mission has continued to be extended by scientists.
Both Voyagers have already exited the Sun’s heliosphere and are now traveling through the interstellar medium, a region of outer space beyond the influence of the Solar System.
The current push by NASA aims to prolong the lifespan of both spacecraft by addressing the operation of thrusters.
“This far into the mission, the engineering team is being faced with a lot of challenges for which we just don’t have a playbook,” said Linda Spilker, project scientist for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “But they continue to come up with creative solutions.”
Optimizing thruster function
The Voyager’s thrusters fire automatically to rotate and reorient the spacecraft, keeping its antennas pointed at Earth.
However, in the long run, fuel residue accumulates in the narrow tubes of the thrusters, potentially affecting their functioning. Scientists have been working on a software patch that will reduce the frequency of thruster firings by allowing the spacecraft to rotate farther with each firing.
While more rotation could mean that some data is occasionally lost, the team believes that the fix will help the Voyagers to provide more data overall, as it will greatly extend their lifespan.
“This patch is like an insurance policy that will protect us in the future and help us keep these probes going as long as possible,” said JPL’s Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager. “These are the only spacecraft to ever operate in interstellar space, so the data they’re sending back is uniquely valuable to our understanding of our local universe.”
Updates will take 18 hours to reach the spacecraft
The team uploaded the patch on Friday. The patch instructions will take over 18 hours to travel to and reach the spacecraft. Once they confirm there are no immediate issues, they will execute a command on October 28th, to check the patch's proper operation.
The team is also uploading a software patch that will prevent the recurrence of a glitch that arose on Voyager 1 last year. Despite operating normally, the spacecraft began sending garbled information about its health and activities to mission controllers.
The glitch was caused by the probe’s attitude articulation and control system (AACS), as it started sending the telemetry data through a broken onboard computer, which corrupted the information.
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