Tag Archives: Voyager 2

Interstellar space, as seen by both Voyager spacecraft

Today a suite of new science papers were published outlining what scientists learned when Voyager 2 joined Voyager 1 in interstellar space last November.

The Sun’s heliosphere is like a ship sailing through interstellar space. Both the heliosphere and interstellar space are filled with plasma, a gas that has had some of its atoms stripped of their electrons. The plasma inside the heliosphere is hot and sparse, while the plasma in interstellar space is colder and denser. The space between stars also contains cosmic rays, or particles accelerated by exploding stars. Voyager 1 discovered that the heliosphere protects Earth and the other planets from more than 70% of that radiation.

The data also shows that Voyager 2, which exited the heliosphere somewhat perpendicular to its direction of travel, is still in the transitional zone between the heliosphere and interstellar space. Voyager 1 exited out the head of the heliosphere, so its transitional zone was compressed and shorter.

The real achievement of these results however is that they were obtainable at all. For both spacecraft to be functioning so well after forty years in space, and able to get their data back to Earth from distances more than 11 billion miles, is a true testament to the grand engineering that went into their design and construction.

They built well in the mid-twentieth century.

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Engineers adjust Voyagers 1 & 2 because of steadily dropping power

In recognition that the available power on both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 continues to drop due to the age of the spacecraft, engineers have decided to make some major changes in how they operate both spacecraft.

For example, to save power on Voyager 2 they have turned off the heaters for the instrument that confirmed last year that the spacecraft had entered interstellar space. Even so, the instrument is still functioning and sending back data. It is expected it will continue to work for some time before finally succumbing to the cold of deep space.

They have also decided to reactivate the back-up thrusters on Voyager 2, just as they did with Voyager 1 in 2017.

Another challenge that engineers have faced is managing the degradation of some of the spacecraft thrusters, which fire in tiny pulses, or puffs, to subtly rotate the spacecraft. This became an issue in 2017, when mission controllers noticed that a set of thrusters on Voyager 1 needed to give off more puffs to keep the spacecraft’s antenna pointed at Earth. To make sure the spacecraft could continue to maintain proper orientation, the team fired up another set of thrusters on Voyager 1 that hadn’t been used in 37 years.

Voyager 2’s current thrusters have started to degrade, too. Mission managers have decided to make the same thruster switch on that probe this month. Voyager 2 last used these thrusters (known as trajectory correction maneuver thrusters) during its encounter with Neptune in 1989.

It is thirty years since those thusters on Voyager 2’s were used. If they work it will be an incredible testament to the engineers who designed both spacecraft.

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Voyager 2 enters interstellar space

The Voyager 2 spacecraft, launched in 1977, has entered interstellar space, becoming the second human spacecraft to achieve this.

Comparing data from different instruments aboard the trailblazing spacecraft, mission scientists determined the probe crossed the outer edge of the heliosphere on Nov. 5. This boundary, called the heliopause, is where the tenuous, hot solar wind meets the cold, dense interstellar medium. Its twin, Voyager 1, crossed this boundary in 2012, but Voyager 2 carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway into interstellar space.

Voyager 2 now is slightly more than 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) from Earth. Mission operators still can communicate with Voyager 2 as it enters this new phase of its journey, but information – moving at the speed of light – takes about 16.5 hours to travel from the spacecraft to Earth. By comparison, light traveling from the Sun takes about eight minutes to reach Earth.

When I first wrote about these spacecraft in the 1990s, it was thought that Voyager 2 would probably not exit the solar system until the 2020s, meaning that its nuclear power source might die before that happened. That it has happened now, so much earlier, helps map the size of the heliosphere as well as the pressure that might be placed upon it by the interstellar medium

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Data from Voyager 2 suggests it is entering interstellar space

New data since August from Voyager 2 now suggests it is finally leaving the heliosphere of the solar system and entering interstellar space.

Since late August, the Cosmic Ray Subsystem instrument on Voyager 2 has measured about a 5 percent increase in the rate of cosmic rays hitting the spacecraft compared to early August. The probe’s Low-Energy Charged Particle instrument has detected a similar increase in higher-energy cosmic rays.

Cosmic rays are fast-moving particles that originate outside the solar system. Some of these cosmic rays are blocked by the heliosphere, so mission planners expect that Voyager 2 will measure an increase in the rate of cosmic rays as it approaches and crosses the boundary of the heliosphere.

In May 2012, Voyager 1 experienced an increase in the rate of cosmic rays similar to what Voyager 2 is now detecting. That was about three months before Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause and entered interstellar space.

The scientists warn that there is great uncertainty here, and that the actual transition into interstellar space might take longer than with Voyager 1 since Voyager 2 is traveling in a different direction and is leaving during a different time in the solar cycle.

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Hubble takes a look at both Voyagers’ interstellar path

Using the Hubble Space Telescope astronomers have taken a peek at the interstellar material that the two Voyager spacecraft will travel through as they move out and leave the solar system in the coming decades.

Voyager 1 is 13 billion miles from Earth, making it the farthest human-made object ever built. In about 40,000 years, after the spacecraft will no longer be operational and will not be able to gather new data, it will pass within 1.6 light-years of the star Gliese 445, in the constellation Camelopardalis. Its twin, Voyager 2, is 10.5 billion miles from Earth, and will pass 1.7 light-years from the star Ross 248 in about 40,000 years.

For the next 10 years, the Voyagers will be making measurements of interstellar material, magnetic fields, and cosmic rays along their trajectories. Hubble complements the Voyagers’ observations by gazing at two sight lines along each spacecraft’s path to map interstellar structure along their star-bound routes. Each sight line stretches several light-years to nearby stars. Sampling the light from those stars, Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph measured how interstellar material absorbed some of the starlight, leaving telltale spectral fingerprints.

Hubble found that Voyager 2 will move out of the interstellar cloud that surrounds the solar system in a couple thousand years. The astronomers, based on Hubble data, predict that the spacecraft will spend 90,000 years in a second cloud before passing into a third interstellar cloud.

This is very clever science. It allows data from Hubble to complement the data from the two Voyager spacecraft to better understand the interstellar regions that surround our solar system.

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On August 13, 2012, Voyager 2 became the longest-operating spacecraft in history, finally topping Pioneer 6, which was launched on Dec. 16, 1965, and sent its last signal back on Dec. 8, 2000.

On August 13, 2012, Voyager 2 became the longest-operating spacecraft in history, finally topping Pioneer 6, which was launched on Dec. 16, 1965, and sent its last signal back to Earth on Dec. 8, 2000.

And Voyager 2, along with its partner Voyager 1, are still working, and engineers hope they will still be working for another eight to twelve years, enough time for them to leave the solar system and enter interstellar space.

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