When will the Voyager space mission run out of batteries?

A revealing clue about how long NASA’s Voyager probe has been in space can be found in two types of “high-tech” storage devices that the exploration spacecraft use to store data — an eight-track tape.

While readers of a certain age will remember the shrill, mid-singing vocals of the first popular portable music medium, those who missed that particular joy probably weren’t on August 20, 1977, when the first dual Voyager probes The launch was from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Voyager 2 launched the same day, and Voyager 1 lifted off two weeks later. Since then, the two probes have captured stunning images during planetary flybys and are now traveling through interstellar space, still gathering new information and transmitting it back to their home stars.

Explore Borrowed Time: No one was more shocked than NASA’s engineers that Voyager, which was initially expected to live for five years, was still operational, albeit at a reduced capacity to preserve its dwindling power supply. In 2012, Voyager broke NASA’s record for the longest-lived space mission.

Operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the first destinations for the two probes were Jupiter and Saturn, before Voyager 1 headed to the heliosphere, and Voyager 2 went on to record close encounters with Uranus and Neptune. Both spacecraft are now in interstellar space — the region where the sun’s constant flow of matter and magnetic fields stop affecting its surroundings — and transmit data that is solving some scientific mysteries and unraveling new ones. As of January this year, Voyager 1 was 14.5 billion miles from Terra Prime.

“Today, as two Voyagers explore interstellar space, they are providing humanity with a look into uncharted territory,” Voyager’s associate project scientist at JPL, Linda Spilker, posted this week in the lab said a report on the website. “For the first time, we’ve been able to directly study how a star, our sun, interacts with particles and magnetic fields outside the heliosphere, helping scientists understand the local neighborhood between stars, upending some theories about the region, and provide critical information for future missions.”

In case of encountering aliens, put the needle on this: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which sounds a bit like the proud parents of high-achieving kids, points out that Voyager’s eight-track tape storage system has about 3 million times less memory than a modern phone and transfers data about 38,000 times slower than a 5G internet connection.

While the technology behind the rover’s data storage may sound a bit dusty, if either rover encounters alien life on its journey, their onboard “message in a bottle” can be found in much older recorded relics.

According to Jet Propulsion Laboratory, each Voyager carries a golden record containing images of life on Earth, basic scientific schematics and audio including sounds from nature, greetings and music in multiple languages . The gold-plated record serves as a cosmic handshake for anyone (or anything) who might encounter a space probe, and includes “how to play” instructions. At the rate at which gold decays in space and is eroded by cosmic radiation, these records will last for more than a billion years, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The sound of silence approaches: According to the JPL, the Voyager probe is powered by a thermoelectric generator containing radioisotopes of plutonium, which produces heat that can be converted into electricity. As the plutonium decays, the heat output decreases and Voyager loses power. To compensate, the Voyager team shut down all unnecessary systems, some of which were once considered essential, including heaters that protect still-operating instruments from the frigid temperatures of space. All five instruments that have had their heaters turned off since 2019 are still working, albeit at temperatures well below the coldest temperatures they have ever tested, JPL said.

NASA expects Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to run out of power sometime in the mid-2020s — officially ending their decades-long missions, according to UPI.

Once the probes have quieted down, NASA said the Voyager spacecraft will begin their final mission – going deep into space and acting as Earth “ambassadors” if they encounter another form of life.

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