Will we ever lose contact with the Voyager probes?

Question posed by A. Nonymous.

Voyager 1 & 2 are two spacecraft that have already far exceeded their original design specifications and outlived their initial missions. Their missions to explore Jupiter and Saturn were extended to include Uranus and Neptune, and then a new mission was introduced to explore the outer reaches of the Sun's domain. Read more about that here.

But how long will they continue?
The Voyager probes could potentially continue to send back data for a very, very long time yet, if it wasn't for one thing: Power. The probes are both powered by Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) which use plutonium as a fuel source. Whilst such a power source can last for a long time, it won't last forever.

According to NASA's JPL Voyager website, the power being supplied by both spacecraft's RTG hasn't dropped as much as was projected, but it has still dropped. As the power drops, certain parts of the spacecraft need to be turned off in order to avoid power supply not being able to meet demand. Details can be read at the website link above, but in summary a small number of systems have been switched off in both craft in recent years either because of failure in necessary equipment or because the systems are no necessary for the current missions.

From around the end of this year (2010) certain systems will start to be switched off, starting with Voyager 1's Data Tape Recorder functions (Voyager 2's was switched off in 2007 due to an equipment failure). Scientific instruments aboard the probes will start to be shut down in around 2020, with the order yet to be determined.

It is thought that the Voyager probes will continue to send back data until at least 2025, almost fifty years after their original launch.

Comments

  1. That is insane, 30 year old technology still going strong. I love the fact that NASA are able to develop these vehicles, like the Mars rovers that last well beyond the shelf life. Multi-national corporations who make consumer goods: please take note!

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  2. Yeah, I've had a DAB radio for a year and it's already playing up...

    ReplyDelete

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