Skip to main content

The long goodbye of NASA’s forty-year-old Voyager probes

Update Jun 23: A NASA spokesperson has clarified that the powering down of some of the Voyagers’ systems is part of an ongoing process of power management which has ramped up in the past three years and is not a recent change. A committee will make a decision about further management of the probes’ power budget this August. The article has been updated accordingly.

The Voyager probes, the most distant human-made objects in the universe, are entering their twilight years. The two probes built by NASA were launched in the 1970s, and their decades-old hardware is still operating — much to everyone’s astonishment — but their power levels are falling at a rate of four watts per year. Over the last three years NASA has turned off the heaters of the probes’ remaining five science instruments, but impressively enough the instruments have continued to operate even in conditions much colder that that which they were tested for.

NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, shown in this illustration, has been exploring our solar system since 1977, along with its twin, Voyager 2.
NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, shown in this illustration, has been exploring our solar system since 1977, along with its twin, Voyager 2. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The fact both probes are both still operating at all is incredible, given that they were originally designed for a four-year mission. “We’re at 44 and a half years,” Ralph McNutt, a researcher who has worked with the Voyager probes, said to Scientific American in a profile about the mission. “So we’ve done 10 times the warranty on the darn things.”

The Voyager program was able to take advantage of a moment of cosmic coordination, when Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune were all lined up in such a way that the probes could visit each of these planets on their one-way journey away from Earth. The probes snapped images of Jupiter’s clouds, discovered new phenomena like volcanic activity on Jupiter’s moon Io, and investigated Saturn’s rings.

Pale Blue Dot Revisited
An updated 30th-anniversary version of the Pale Blue Dot photo taken by Voyager 1. NASA

But perhaps the probes’ most celebrated contribution to science was an image that recorded where they had come from: The famous Pale Blue Dot photo showing the Earth as a tiny dot against the blackness of space, taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 when it was 3.7 billion miles from the sun, beyond the orbit of Neptune. The photo has reminded scientists and members of the public of the vastness of space and the fragile nature of Earth ever since.

In 2013 and 2018, Voyagers 1 and 2 respectively passed a boundary called the heliopause and entered interstellar space. The heliopause is the edge of the sun’s solar wind, and traveling beyond it leaves the probes on the farthest edges of the solar system. The probes are still working and being used to study the interstellar gas they are floating through.

However, as you’d expect, the probes’ 40-year-old hardware has faced some issues. Voyager 2 suffered a power glitch in 2020, and just recently Voyager 1 experienced a strange error from its altitude control system. But they are both still operating and collecting and transmitting data, far outliving even the most optimistic predictions of their lifespans.

With careful power management, they may be able to continue working in some capacity until 2030 — after which we’ll have to say goodbye to these two pioneering explorers, sailing off alone into the dark.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
How NASA’s astronaut class of 1978 changed the face of space exploration
Sally Ride NASA

When you look back on the long history of crewed spaceflight, one group stands out for its radical challenge to the conventional wisdom of who could become an astronaut. NASA's astronaut class of 1978 saw not only its first women and people of color working as astronauts such as Sally Ride and Guy Bluford, but also the first Asian American astronaut, El Onizuka, the first Jewish American astronaut, Judy Resnik, and the first LGBT astronaut, once again Sally Ride.

A new book, The New Guys: The Historic Class of Astronauts That Broke Barriers and Changed the Face of Space Travel, chronicles the story of this class and its impact on both NASA and the wider world’s perceptions of who could be an astronaut. We spoke to the author, Meredith Bagby, about this remarkable group of people and how they changed the face of human spaceflight.
Breaking the mold
Throughout the 50s and 60s, NASA almost exclusively chose fighter pilots for its early human spaceflight program, Project Mercury. That meant that not only were astronaut groups like the famous Mercury Seven entirely composed of white men, but they also came from very similar military backgrounds.

Read more
Unique black hole is trailed by 200,000 light-year-long tail of stars
This is an artist's impression of a runaway supermassive black hole that was ejected from its host galaxy as a result of a tussle between it and two other black holes. As the black hole plows through intergalactic space it compresses tenuous gas in front to it. This precipitates the birth of hot blue stars. This illustration is based on Hubble Space Telescope observations of a 200,000-light-year-long contrail of stars behind an escaping black hole.

Black holes might have a reputation as terrifying monsters, devouring all they come into contact with -- but they can be a force of creation too, feeding the formation of new stars. Researchers using data from the Hubble Space Telescope recently spotted an unexpectedly huge trail of stars forming in the wake of a rogue black hole.

While most very large black holes, called supermassive black holes, sit at the center of galaxies, occasionally these enormous beasts can be found wandering alone in the depths of space. That's the case with the recently discovered black hole with the mass of 20 million suns, which is streaking through the sky at tremendous speed. This likely began with two galaxies merging, each with its own supermassive black hole, which formed a binary system. Then a third galaxy got too close, and in the chaos of a three-way merger one of the black holes was kicked out and sent zipping off into space -- so fast that if it were in our solar system, it would travel from the Earth to the moon in 14 minutes.

Read more
NASA and Boeing reveal new date for first crewed Starliner flight
A graphic rendering of the Boeing Starliner orbiting Earth.

NASA and Boeing had been hoping to perform the first crewed flight of the Starliner spacecraft next month, but on Wednesday they announced the mission will now take place no earlier than Friday, July 21.

“While the Starliner spacecraft build is complete, additional time is needed to close out verification and validation work prior to the system’s first flight with crew on board,” Boeing said in a statement posted on its website.

Read more