Skip to main content

Can Voyager 2, exploring space beyond the solar system, survive a power glitch?

One of the most distant man-made objects in the universe, NASA’s Voyager 2, has suffered a glitch that caused it to consume more power than expected. Launched in 1977, Voyager 2 has followed its sibling Voyager 1 out beyond the bounds of the solar system and into interstellar space.

The problem began on Saturday, January 25, when the Voyager 2 spacecraft was supposed to execute a scheduled rotation maneuver, in which it rolls over 360 degrees to calibrate its magnetic field instrument. But the craft didn’t perform the maneuver, and two systems remained powered on longer than they should have, consuming more power than was intended.

An artist's concept depicts one of NASA's Voyager spacecraft entering interstellar space
This artist’s concept depicts one of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft entering interstellar space, or the space between stars. Interstellar space is dominated by the plasma, or ionized gas, that was ejected by the death of nearby giant stars millions of years ago. NASA/JPL-Caltech

When the craft draws too much from its power supply, automated protections kick in to prevent its power being drained completely. These automated protections turn off non-essential functions, such as the scientific instruments, to preserve as much power as possible.

The problem is that this affects Voyager 2’s ability to perform its science functions, so the engineers are keen to get the craft back to full operations as soon as possible. They are making progress toward this goal, according to an update shared this week: “As of January 28, Voyager engineers have successfully turned off one of the high-power systems and turned the science instruments back on but have not yet resumed taking data,” NASA reported in a blog post. “The team is now reviewing the status of the rest of the spacecraft and working on returning it to normal operations.”

The power supply used by Voyager 2 is a type called a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which uses the decay of radioactive fuel Plutonium-238 to produce heat which is then converted into electricity. As the Plutonium-238 decays over time, the power the craft can produce drops by approximately 4 watts per year, meaning the engineers have to be increasingly careful with how they budget the available power.

Another challenge for the engineers is the distance between Voyager 2 and Earth. The craft left the solar system in 2018, passing the edge of the heliosphere which marks the end of the sun’s influence on space. Since then it has been investigating the interstellar medium, the vast space between stars. It is now approximately 11.5 billion miles (18.5 billion kilometers) away from the planet, meaning that it takes 17 hours for communications from Earth to reach the craft and another 17 hours for the craft to send a response.

It is estimated that there will not be enough power for any instruments to run by 2025. So throughout the rest of this year and beyond, NASA engineers will attempt to share the limited available power between Voyager 2’s various instruments. We have reached out to NASA for more information about the agency’s expectations for the longevity of the spacecraft and its current scientific work.

But it’s not necessarily the end of the adventure for this trailblazing craft, even once its power runs out and it can no longer communicate with Earth. Eventually, in 20,000 years’ time, Voyager 2 will reach the nearby star Proxima Centauri.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Voyager 2 spacecraft is going solo for the next 11 months
In an artist's depiction, the Voyager 1 craft continues to cruise through interstellar space.

NASA is performing upgrades to its deep space communication system, which will leave the Voyager 2 probe without commands from Earth for 11 months. The plan is to add new capabilities to NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN), which requires taking the system offline. During this time, Voyager 2 will continue to explore interstellar space and to send data back to Earth. However, technicians won't be able to send any commands to the spacecraft.

Voyager 2 did recently suffer a glitch which caused it to use too much power after a failed rotation maneuver. However, that issue was fixed and the craft is now operating as normal.
A quiescent state
Now, in preparation for the upgrades to the Deep Space Network, NASA engineers will put Voyager 2 into a "quiescent state," in which it does not expect to receive signals and but can send science data back to Earth.

Read more
Four proposed NASA missions could reveal unknown secrets of the solar system
Artist concept of the solar system.

Artist concept of the solar system. NASA

Four new missions are being considered to learn more about the strange and wondrous objects of our solar system as part of NASA's Discovery Program. The program invites scientists and engineers to submit proposals for planetary science missions which investigate objects which are not current targets of NASA active missions. The hope is that the search will turn up new ideas for missions which can teach us about the bodies of the solar system, how they developed over time, and even how the Earth developed as well.
Exploring the volcanoes of Io
This global view of Jupiter's moon, Io, was obtained during the tenth orbit of Jupiter by NASA's Galileo spacecraft. NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Read more
Voyager 2, one of our most distant probes, overcomes glitch and is back online
Artist's concept of NASA's Voyager spacecraft.

Last week, NASA announced that it was experiencing problems with Voyager 2, the spacecraft launched in the 1970s which has since left the solar system and journeyed into interstellar space. In the last few days engineers have been able to stabilize the craft and return to operations as normal.

The first indications that something was amiss with the craft occurred on January 25, when Voyager was supposed to perform a rotation maneuver to calibrate its magnetic field instrument. The craft should have rolled over 360 degrees as part of the calibration. However, the craft couldn't perform the maneuver, and because of this two power-hungry systems remained on and activated longer than was needed, consuming more power than they should have.

Read more