We’re tremendously close to the end of an era.
Way back in 1977, NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 launched and began the greatest adventure ever taken by an uncrewed space probe. Traveling past all of the outer planets (minus Pluto), they fundamentally transformed our grasp of the solar system, and how it came into being. But the interstellar journey of the iconic probes — which has already lasted nearly 45 years — is coming to a close, as NASA starts the process of shutting the spacecrafts’ systems down, according to an initial report from Scientific American.
Nothing made by humans has traveled as far as these probes. And it proves that deep space beckons humanity to take its next steps in a wider universe.
NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 are running out of power
Launched in 1977, the two probes pushed the envelope for space exploration, and have continued to do so ever since. It’s impossible to overemphasize how deep in space these probes have gone, traveling farther from the planet Earth than any object ever built by humans. As such, these voyagers will likely hold the record of the most distant human-made objects for decades, if not a century.
The decision to cut power to a minimum was made to extend the probes’ lifespans for a few more years, with a soft cutoff deadline set for 2030, according to the Scientific American report. “We’ve done 10 times the warranty on the darn things,” said Physicist Ralph McNutt at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in the report, with reference to the unprecedented longevity of the probes expected to last four short years.
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While incredible, this isn’t a total surprise. Both probes are powered with radioactive plutonium reactors, which have maintained a warm supply of power to the tiny onboard computers that have run for decades without a break.
But, alas, the break is coming.
NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 are humanity’s first tentative step into a wider universe
Every year, the energy in the probes’ systems is decreasing by roughly 4 watts, according to the report. This means progressively more components and devices need to be shut down as the power supply dwindles. “If everything goes really well, maybe we can get the missions extended into the 2030s,” said Linda Spilker, a JPL planetary scientist who worked at the dawn of the Voyager missions, in 1977.
“It just depends on the power. That’s the limiting point,” added Spilker. The primary mission of the probes was to do a flyby of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn — and they did it with flying colors (literally); sending the first up-close and detailed images of Europa, Ganymede, Titan, and more. But perhaps the most significant image took more than a decade to make happen.
In 1990, Voyager 1 snapped an image of Earth, 3.7 billion miles away from the sun. Famously popularized by the late astronomer Carl Sagan, the “pale blue dot” served to expose how small and fragile our entire existence really is — from the wars of ancient civilization, our petty political grandstanding, the exploitation of the planet’s ecosystem, and our entire evolutionary journey to the present day. It was all there, in a tiny blue speck in a seemingly infinite, black, and indifferent universe.
If there’s one thing we should think of the iconic probes, it’s this: the human race has existed for a very small blink of the eye in the history of the universe, on a tiny and fragile planet that won’t be here for long. And there’s an entire universe beckoning us to step out of our comfort zones of human hubris, and into the greatest adventure yet. Voyager 1 and 2 are and will be our first tentative step into cosmic adulthood, as a young population of sentient beings.