back to article 43 years and 14 billion miles later, Voyager 1 still crunching data to reveal secrets of the interstellar medium

Nearly nine years after leaving the solar system, and decades beyond its original mission, Voyager 1 is still gathering valuable data, providing plasma readings to continuously sample the density of the interstellar medium. Scientists at Cornell University have used data from the spacecraft, launched in 1977, to uncover a weak …

  1. Roger Greenwood
    Pint

    "Born nearly two decades after the spacecrafts launched"

    Respect to those engineers and scientists who built it, and those who continue to push the boundaries (from someone born nearly 2 decades before they launched!)

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: "Born nearly two decades after the spacecrafts launched"

      Yeah, and like many here, I remember them being launched, and watching in anticipation as the first photos came in from each planetary and moon encounter.

      Fuck, \'m getting old!!!

  2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "It is not expected to have the power remaining to operate a single scientific instrument beyond 2025."

    I wouldn't put it past the abilities of this amazing team to devise some means of enabling an instrument to be used intermittently even beyond that date. And I'm sure there'll be investigators working through the existing data a good while after that.

    It's good to be reminded of the best we humans are capable of.

  3. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    "It's been absolutely thrilling to work with a spacecraft that has such an incredible legacy"

    I'll bet it is.

    It is incredible that we've been able to do such things. It is indispensible that we continue to milk Voyager for every ounce of scientific data we can get while we still can.

    And it is a tribute to Science and to the entire human race that NASA selflessly grants access to such data, instead of hoarding it.

    I'm not saying that NASA has a habit of hoarding data, I'm saying that NASA is the embodiement of Knowledge, giving access without hesitation to any data it has on our Universe.

    There are some forces for Good in our world, and NASA is one of them.

  4. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

    A sign of (past) times

    This is a testament to the days when in order to try to ensure that something would last it's expected life, it was over-engineered.

    We now know so much about materials science that we can engineer to the limits of the materials. These new things will not last in the same way.

    I'm not sure whether this is a good thing or not. On one hand, we get much more bang for the buck during the initial mission. On the other, we're less likely to get these amazing windfalls in the future.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A sign of (past) times

      Open-ended design where feasible - has always provided unpredicted enhancement capabilities later. Make a design too precise and there is no room to handle any unexpected problems.

      Tom Peters gave an example of a successful multi-contractor missile project. The interface specs were deliberately woolly to allow for unforeseen adjustments.

      It is like documentation: the more precise the detail - the more likely it is to be wrong at some future point.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Headmaster

        Re: A sign of (past) times

        "It is like documentation: the more precise the detail - the more likely it is to be wrong at some future point."

        Sometime details can be important. Such as, for example, are we using metric or imperial measurements :-)

    2. Big_Boomer Silver badge

      Re: A sign of (past) times

      In some respects I agree, but what about Galileo, Juno, New Horizons, and the various Mars rovers. All have exceeded their planned missions and gone on to deliver useful data for years after their original mission was completed.

  5. Aladdin Sane
    Joke

    43 years

    Was that before or after the pandemic started?

    1. MiguelC Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: 43 years

      meh, as I see it, today is the 437th of March, 2020

    2. SgtFalstaff

      Re: 43 years

      >Was that before or after the pandemic started?

      Yes

  6. Chris G Silver badge
    Pint

    I like to think

    That one day humanity will catch up with Voyager, give it an overhaul and up grade it then set it back on its path outward from Sol to continue doing the incredible job it has done so far.

    1. fedoraman

      Re: I like to think

      Wasn't there an science fiction story in which a later Earth spaceship smashed into it? Possibly by Arthur C. Clarke?

      1. UCAP Silver badge

        Re: I like to think

        One of the Star Trek films ("The Search for Spock" I think) started with a Klingon Bird of Prey destroying an old probe that looks remarkably like Voyager. Also in the original Star Trek film, V'ger was a Voyager-class probe that had been massively upgraded by an alien civilisation (you caught a glimpse of the probe hidden in the core of the vat V'ger structure).

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: I like to think

          yeah, V-ger almost broke the earth looking for a Whale of a time.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I like to think

        Tried to find it - does sound sort of familiar.

        Found this instead!

        https://www.theonion.com/voyager-probe-badly-damaged-after-smashing-into-end-of-1819578920

    2. ShadowDragon8685

      Re: I like to think

      Wouldn't it be better to intercept Voyager I and II, capture them safely, tell them it's time to stand down now, and take them home to rest in a museum, whilst launching Voyager III and IV to continue on?

  7. This post has been deleted by its author

  8. werdsmith Silver badge

    The link budget for this distance would be interesting.

  9. Retiredwatcher

    Often overlooked

    Our ability to get the really weak radio signals back from the probe.

    We continue to pollute the radio spectrum on our planet like all the other things we screw up!

    Also one has to wonder where our early radio transmissions have got to by now.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Often overlooked

      Over a hundred light years.

      Now, that's a sobering thought (and a bit early in the day to start correcting it).

      1. UCAP Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: Often overlooked

        ... a bit early in the day to start correcting it...

        I think you mean that its a bit too late. The vast invasion fleet is already on its way (that is until it gets swallowed by small dog - scale is a bugger sometimes).

        1. KittenHuffer Silver badge
          Pint

          Re: Often overlooked

          I believe the 'too early' was referring to it being too early to correct the sobriety issue!

          But then the sun is always over the yardarm somewhere!

          1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

            Re: Often overlooked

            Indeed. But not here at the time.

            1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
              Facepalm

              Re: Often overlooked

              Have you not heard of the Global Village we all inhabit?

        2. JDPower666

          Re: Often overlooked

          Well they were beaming Coldplay into space last week, any civilisations that weren't already on their way to wipe us out will definitely have set off now

          1. Lord Kipper III

            Re: Often overlooked

            Fear not, we simply beam Slim Whitman to deal with the invasion.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSbigjiKLoU

    2. My other car WAS an IAV Stryker Silver badge

      Re: Often overlooked

      Just in my lifetime (and speaking from my own country, YMMV):

      * Growth of analog TV channels, then sudden conversion to digital = likely lower total broadcast power and less "noise" of spillage to other frequencies.

      * Death of many radio stations (which may have a digital conversion of their own someday).

      * Rise of analog mobile phones, then quickly killed for digital, which is limited to only a few frequency bands.

      * Rise of Wi-Fi, again limited in frequency spread.

      * Overall better EM design in many products compared to industry and appliances of 50 to 100 years ago.

      Does this actually mean we're wasting less EM/RF into space even as we use more in this thin shell of atmosphere? Maybe. Can NASA tell us?

      1. DJO Silver badge

        Re: Often overlooked

        Doesn't really matter, every frequency is used in multiple locations around the globe, that's not a problem on the ground as you will only get the one that's nearest to you but out in space they are all about the same distance away so extracting a single signal from the mush of multiple signals would be pretty close to impossible.

        In fact the combined mush might be indistinguishable from random noise.

        Uplink spill might be detectable from a distance but that will sweeping round like a lighthouse beam as the Earth rotates so that's not too much of a concern.

        1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

          Re: Often overlooked

          Umm... no.

          First, things like car engines, hard drives, & vacuum tubes are incredibly low power by the time you get past the absorbtion of the atmosphere.

          Second, for a long time (several decades), there have been requirements for shielding regarding how much is being transmitted.

          Third, signals from the control center are very high power, veryfocused, and very narrow band. They are also on a gimbled transmitter tower, so the operational window lasts several hours each day. It is also turned off when not pointed at the probe.

        2. Martin an gof Silver badge

          Re: Often overlooked

          In fact the combined mush might be indistinguishable from random noise.

          Most digital transmission methods these days are designed to be (nearly) indistinguishable from noise. Makes them more efficient, less susceptible to dynamic interference and less likely to interfere with other things... on the earth.

          I suppose we keep away from the frequencies used by the likes of Voyager, but if some eejit 'white space' device comes along, raising the noise floor even just a little could totally drown out such weak signals. At least a single-carrier AM, FM or PM signal could be 'notched' out...

          :-/

          M.

      2. mmonroe

        Re: Often overlooked

        I think digital TV was a bad idea. Back in the analogue days, I could always get a picture. It might have had snow, but I could always watch the program. Now, if it rains, or if the atmosphere isn't right, I get extreme pixalisation and the picture keeps freezing. I have line of site to the transmitter too.

        As to Voyager, long may it continue on it's merry way.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Often overlooked

          When I had 4 analogue channels, I could always seem to find something to watch.

          Now with all the digital and streaming we can never seem to find anything interesting to watch.

          Saying that, we have been watching "The Muppet Show" from - actually come to think of it - about the same time Voyager 1 launched!

    3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Often overlooked

      "We continue to pollute the radio spectrum on our planet like all the other things we screw up!"

      Just a few short years ago, scientists engaged in the hunt for extra-terrestrial life, using our own current communications trajectory, were considering that advanced civilisations might not be detectable as they switched from "primitive" radio comms to wired and fibre for most wide band, wide interest entertainment etc.

      Now look at us!!

  10. Ol'Peculier
    Unhappy

    Progress...

    So we can get a signal from a satellite that is 43 years old, and 14 billion miles away, yet I struggled to get Radio 2 on my car stereo when I ventured into the sticks last week.

    That's progress for you.

    1. Chris G Silver badge

      Re: Progress...

      I would suggest fitting a 70M steerable dish to your car roof, then all you need is an auto steer mechanism to keep it aligned with the nearest transmitter.

      1. zuckzuckgo Bronze badge

        Re: Progress...

        Before installing that antenna you might want to confirm that music squeezed through 160 bit/sec channel is still worth listening to.

        1. druck Silver badge

          Re: Progress...

          That's about twice the average DAB channel bit rate, or so it sounds.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Progress...

      Out here in the sticks is where they stick the VHF transmitter at 250kw ERP per channel. On top of what my granddaughter, when a toddler, thought was a stick on the horizon until we took her closer to see it disappearing several hundred feet into the sky.

      1. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: Progress...

        After a heavy session in a country pub we wandered over to a massive radio tower to see if we could climb it. Very heavily protected - apparently someone had bas jumped off it and they'd upgraded the security. We found this out the next night talking to someone in the pub who'd been working there and was very pleased we were too pissed to try the gate with he hadn't locked- why would you at 3 am? We were giggling round the perimeter trying to find an overhanging tree to fall out of.

      2. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        Re: Progress...

        Those towers were transmitting parallel to the Earth's surface, which means that they had to go through a lot of atmosphere to escape. Very little actually succeeds.

    3. Fr. Ted Crilly

      Re: Progress...

      Well on the upside at least it spared you the chore of tuning off Mr 'has never been funny' steve wright...

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    1977

    Form 4 at high school.

    We did a project on Voyager.

    Still can’t fathom the distances involved.

    1. eldakka Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: 1977

      > Still can’t fathom the distances involved.

      If you 'fathom' it 12320000000000 times you'll be in the ballpark of 14 billion miles.

      1. HildyJ Silver badge
        Pint

        Re: 1977

        According to NASA's real time tracker at https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/ it's about 14,133,497,500 miles from Earth you'd have to stack 12.5 trillion Osmans on top of each other and, since it's going over 38,000 mph, you'd have to add about 10,000 Osmans per second.

        Outside of ElReg standard units, you'd have to walk around the Earth about 565,340 times to get to where it is now and you'd have to do it in less than a second per walk to keep up.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: 1977

          "10,000 Osmans per second"

          Oh, please, no! One can be quite funny in small doses. But not 10,000 per second, that's just going too far!!

  12. UCAP Silver badge

    Voyager

    The probes that just keep on giving, decades after any reasonable person would have assumed that they had died.

    1. Magani
      Happy

      Re: Voyager

      The little engine probe that could.

  13. Potemkine! Silver badge

    If one can value sent by a 43-old space probe, imagine the value of the data collected from any online usage.

    Anyway, Voyager is the proof that nuclear technology is very efficient to be a long-lasting and reliable source of energy!

    1. ThatOne Silver badge

      > nuclear technology is very efficient

      It's not really "nuclear" technology as we usually understand it, it's just a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (Wikipedia).

      There is no fission or fusion, or whatever else we call "nuclear power" going on, just a normal, natural process you find all around you in nature.

      1. DJO Silver badge

        There is no fission or fusion, or whatever else we call "nuclear power" going on

        Not strictly true. What they use is the heat from radioactive decay, much the same as in a nuclear power plant just a lot less heat.

        1. ThatOne Silver badge
          Headmaster

          > Not strictly true. What they use is the heat from radioactive decay, much the same as in a nuclear power plant just a lot less heat.

          All right, what I meant is that it's not artificially induced fission, but the natural decay of an unstable isotope, like it happens in nature.

      2. andy k O'Croydon
        Facepalm

        So it's powered by nuclear decay but it isn't nuclear technology? Interesting perspective.

        1. ThatOne Silver badge

          > So it's powered by nuclear decay but it isn't nuclear technology?

          I don't think it qualifies as "technology", it's a natural process. YMMV.

      3. John Robson Silver badge

        "There is no fission"

        So where does the heat come from, and why is it halving every n years?

        1. Man inna barrel

          "So where does the heat come from, and why is it halving every n years?"

          Most radioactivity does not involve fission. Typical radioactive decay is alpha emission (helium nuclei), beta emission (electrons), and gamma emission (photons). All these carry energy. Fission is splitting into two or more substantial nuclei, bigger than He. That is my interpretation, anyway.

        2. tfb Silver badge
          Boffin

          There is indeed no fission, but just nuclear decay. This is often misunderstood. Plutonium-238 (which I think these RTGs use) decays to uranium-234 with the emission of an alpha particle (helium nucleus) which is moving pretty quickly, which is where the energy comes from. For the purposes of an RTG U-234 is effectively stable (its half-life is about 250,000 years), but it eventually decays in turn through some chain ending with lead.

          This decay is a natural process insofar as plutonium-238 is natural, which it's not: its half-life (~88 years) is so short there's no primordial plutonium-238 in existence and I don't think it's a decay product of anything else natural). You want a fairly short half-life however as that corresponds with a fairly high power output of course.

          Fission is a different process than decay: fission is when an nucleus absorbs a neutron and then splits into two daughter nuclei of fairly substantial mass. An example of this is uranium-235: U-235 + a neutron splits into barium-141, krypton-92 and three neutrons.

          Plutonium-238 is fissionable but not fissile: what that means is that if you fire a high-enough energy neutron at it you can get it to split, but it won't sustain a fission chain reaction. Uranium-235 is fissile, which means it will sustain a fission chain reaction, as the neutrons spat out will cause further fission (often you need to 'moderate' them – slow them down – however).

          But in an RTG no fission is happening: it's just nuclear decay, which happens to anything not stable.

          1. John Robson Silver badge
            Boffin

            "fission is when an nucleus absorbs a neutron and then splits into two daughter nuclei of fairly substantial mass"

            Fission to be merely splitting; spontaneous fission is certainly possible, as distinct from induced fission, which is what you have described.

            The "parts of roughly equal mass" is indeed the fragment that had slipped my mind - the normal usage of the word doesn't require the split to be into "about equal parts", but in the context of nuclear fission it is of course used to differentiate from the more traditional decay products.

            1. tfb Silver badge
              Boffin

              Spontaneous fission does occur as you say, but it's absurdly rare in natural elements, and generally much rarer than other decay processes. As an example uranium-235 has a half-life of 700 million years: its spontaneous fission half life is about 3.5E17 years: about 27 million times the age of the universe. You need to get to really heavy artificial elements before the SF half-life becomes significant. As best I can tell the SF half-life of plutonium-238 is between about 7.4E15 and about 8.6E15 years: something over half a million times the age of the universe (and 90 trillion times its actual half-life).

              Almost the only place where spontaneous fission matters is in nuclear weapons design, where you need to assemble the mass of fissile material without a spontaneous fission setting it off before you're ready. That's why uranium-235 is the only option for gun-type devices: they have a really long assembly time (ish 1ms) and you need a good chance that there will be no spontaneous fissions in that time: uranium-235 has a very low spontaneous fission rate for a fissile material. Implosion devices are much less fussy as their assembly time is much shorter.

  14. ThatOne Silver badge
    Unhappy

    Sky is closing

    > It is not expected to have the power remaining to operate a single scientific instrument beyond 2025.

    Not to mention we might be unable to listen to its incredibly weak signal by then, even if it had enough power left: Money talks louder.

    1. Kibble 2

      Re: Sky is closing

      @ ThatOne

      Sorry for the thumb down, but I understand that your thought was if the instruments weren't doing any science but the probes' transmission strength wasn't attenuated NASA would write off any monitoring. That may yet happen, but monitoring the signal already needs a network of antennas: adding others is pretty easily done.

      I personally don't think NASA will quit monitoring of the Voyagers for a while: it's not every day a probe passes the heliopause.

      1. ThatOne Silver badge

        Re: Sky is closing

        > I understand that your thought was if the instruments weren't doing any science but the probes' transmission strength wasn't attenuated NASA would write off any monitoring

        No, sorry, I admit I wasn't very clear.

        I'm more thinking along two issues: The first is obviously money, and the future availability of it for projects without tangible short/mid-term profits. Times are changing... Second issue is our sky getting progressively covered by huge flocks of chatty Internet satellites (not only Starlink, there are others about to jump on the bandwagon), which will certainly disturb the already faint signal from Voyager. And of course you can't really tell Voyager to shoot between the endless sheets of chaff constantly zooming over our heads.

      2. RegGuy1 Silver badge

        Re: Sky is closing

        Indeed. That and the Gaia data (from the ESA probe) are already dramatically changing the view of our local galactic system.The understanding of this view is fascinating and growing. The Oort Cloud, for example, is conjectured to be a sphere of debris that exists at very large distances (200,000 au or so off the top of my head) so a long way out.

        As a boy growing up in the 70s we knew nowt about this area of space. But we are growing our knowledge nicely. All very interesting. Well done all.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Sky is closing

          "As a boy growing up in the 70s we knew nowt about this area of space. But we are growing our knowledge nicely. All very interesting. Well done all.

          We not have known much about it, but we knew it was there. I started reading SF as a teen in the 70s and that's where I learned that there was such a think as the Oort cloud.

      3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: Sky is closing

        "it's not every day a probe passes the heliopause."

        Based on the many and varied definitions of where the heliopause is, at times it did almost feel like a probe was passing it every day, albeit the same probe and different heliopauses :-)

  15. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    Shades of Spirit

    Have I been a good robot? Is it time to come home yet?

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Shades of Spirit

      Or it could just look at the news channel and realise that its better to stay out there.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hard working

    I work with a number of people that were born after the Voyager missions were launched and most of them do not work nearly as hard ...

  17. Mr. Moose
    Happy

    I hope it lasts until it meets Bender

    https://youtu.be/nN2to6zq1Rg?t=233

    1. phy445
      Coat

      Re: I hope it lasts until it meets Bender

      Good, but surely this one is more relevant? https://youtu.be/dQw4w9WgXcQ?t=42

  18. Adelio Silver badge

    Voyager shows us that NASA knew how to build stuff.

    Lead with brilliant engineers and you get great results. Long may NASA (and the other agencies) continue

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ancient prophecies from the Book of NASA hint that once the holy Voy-A-Gr signal disappears, an apocalypse will engulf the Earth.

  20. N2 Silver badge

    They don't make em like that anymore

    China, please take note .

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