NASA's Voyager 1 Spacecraft, Launched in 1977, Continues Explorations

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-09-23 Print this article Print

What's also amazing is that the equipment aboard the probe was powerful when it was launched, but in comparison with today's technology, it is incredibly outdated.

There are three computers on board, along with three duplicate back-up computers, for a total of six. Those six machines have a total of 68KB of memory, compared with a typical 16GB smartphone in 2013 that contains about 235,000 times more memory, according to Medina.

One of the computers is used for telemetry data, while another sends and receives sequences detailing what NASA wants to do on the craft. The remaining computer system is the attitude and articulation control system (ACS), which Medina calls "my baby." That computer controls the actual movement of Voyager 1 and keeps it pointed toward the Earth.

"I deal with it, I program it, and when there are problems, I reprogram it. We're here every day and we get data on the Voyagers on the average of six to eight hours a day from each one," he said, adding that Voyager 2 is also still in space, on a trajectory that will have it reaching interstellar space in the next two to three years.

Five of the original 11 experiments built into Voyager 1 are still operational, 36 years after the mission began, said Medina. A camera was shut off in 1990 when it was no longer needed in a power-saving move. The spacecraft, which is powered by nuclear fuel, plutonium 238, only has enough fuel to operate the remaining experiments through 2020. At that point, scientists will have to shut down more experiments. By 2025, only enough fuel will remain to simply fly the probe, without any operating experiments, he said.

"At that time, we either go and engineer a monitoring mission with no data or we shut it off," said Medina.

"This is just another phase," Medina said of the craft's travels through interstellar space. "This is not the end of the mission, by no stretch of the imagination. We're trail-blazing unknown territory."

In August, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover celebrated its one-year anniversary on the Martian surface as the space agency looks forward to more amazing discoveries as the rover begins its second full year of exploration. So far, the rover and its two-year planned mission have brought back incredible finds to scientists back on Earth, including the discovery of solid evidence that ancient Mars could have supported life, according to NASA.


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