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In what can only be described as an extraordinary engineering feat, NASA scientists have remotely fixed a software glitch on the Voyager 2 probe, which lies 11.5 billion miles away at the edge of a transitional region of space. Known as the heliosphere, it is a vast, bubble-like area that surrounds the Sun and the Solar System.
The first indication that something was wrong with Voyager 2 came on January 25th, 2020, when the spacecraft failed to rotate 360 degrees to calibrate its magnetic field instruments. Though the unsuccessful attempt caused Voyager 2's science instruments to shut down, the spacecraft did not lose contact with the mission engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
An investigation revealed that the missed maneuver had resulted in two high-power systems operating at the same time. The surge in power usage caused the spacecraft, which has a finite energy supply from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), to switch to conservation mode by shutting down all non-essential operations. NASA explains, "Multiple fault protection routines were programmed into both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in order to allow the spacecraft to automatically take actions to protect themselves if potentially harmful circumstances arise. "
Once the problem had been identified, the Voyager team began the arduous process of resetting the systems to restart the shuttle. Given that it takes 17 hours to send information from Earth to the shuttle and another 17 hours to find out if a command did what it was supposed to do, the process can be both tedious and stressful for the engineers. Fortunately, NASA scientists are no strangers to remote fixes, even ones that are billions of miles away, and by February 7, 2020, Voyager 2 was fully functioning again.
A press release by the US Space Agency explains, "Mission operators report that Voyager 2 continues to be stable and that communications between Earth and the spacecraft are good. The spacecraft has resumed taking science data, and the science teams are now evaluating the health of the instruments following their brief shutoff."
The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts were launched by NASA from Cape Canaveral, Florida in 1977, to conduct close-up studies of Jupiter and Saturn, Saturn's rings, and the the two planets' larger moons. After successfully completing their original mission, the twin spacecraft, which had been built to last just five years, went on to conduct additional flybys of the two outermost giant planets, Uranus and Neptune. Since neither spacecraft was showing any signs of fatigue, NASA engineers decided to extend the mission further by using remote-controlled reprogramming to equip the Voyager twins with more capabilities than they possessed when they left the Earth. Over the past four decades, the two spacecraft have sent back information on all the giant outer planets of our Solar System, 48 of their moons, and the unique systems of rings and magnetic fields those planets possess.
And they are not done yet! In August 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space, or the space between stars. Voyager 2, which is on a different trajectory, followed six years later, joining its twin in November 2018. Both probes have since been sending NASA scientists invaluable data on our Sun and solar winds, as well as the electrically-charged hazes, or plasmas, which fill both interstellar space and the Solar System's farthest outskirts.
Resources: Bgr.com, ZMEscience.com,voyager.jpl.nasa.gov,,www.extremetech.com