A little over 13 hours out from Sol, a veteran of the first space age - Voyager 1 - is working quietly in the depths of space as it travels away from our Sun at 17.163 kilometers per second. But now, NASA has told scientists working on these and other older missions that their missions may be terminated in October to save money, reports Nature.
The decision - which NASA officials say is not yet final - has angered space scientists, who are calling calling the moves penny-wise and pound-foolish, and that it is being done without a usual formal science review.
According to Nature, NASA officials told seven mission managers (Voyager, Ulysses, Polar, Wind, Geotail, FAST (Fast Auroral SnapshoT) and TRACE (Transition Region and Coronal Explorer)) that there is now no money to keep their projects operating after the current fiscal year ends in October.
In the past, NASA has occasionally terminated spacecraft that are still working but that have far exceeded their life expectancy, and are no longer returning significant new science data.
Every few years a review by scientists outside NASA ranks the science value of operating missions to help the agency plan which ones should be extended and which ones terminated.
But the panel never suggested that the missions marked as low-ranking in the most recent review should be shut down this year.
For example, Ulysses, launched in 1990 to explore the Sun's polar regions for the first time, was recommended to continue until 2008, and Wind until 2007.
While the Voyagers were recommended for funding until at least 2006, after which they would be reviewed again.
Launched in 1977, Voyagers 1 and 2 are now more than 14 billion and 11 billion kilometres from Earth, respectively. Having visited all the outer planets except Pluto, they are on their final quest - to locate the unknown boundary between the Sun's domain and the realm where interstellar space begins.
Ground antennas are in regular contact with the spacecraft, which are expected to last until at least 2020 before giving out as their plutonium batteries decay. Under NASA's costing, the Voyagers currently need $4.2 million a year in funding for daily operation and data analysis.
Nature quoted Lennard Fisk, a University of Michigan space scientist who chairs the National Academy of Sciences Space Studies Board and is a former head of NASA space science, as saying the cuts were "an extremely foolish thing to do".
Voyager, he says, is entering one of the most interesting scientific phases of its long life as its particle detectors approach the edge of the Solar System. "It doesn't make sense” to turn off Ulysses just as the Sun comes to the end of a 22-year magnetic cycle.
For now, project scientists say they have no choice but to take the threat seriously. Having been told by NASA that there is no money available after October, Stone says, "we are currently developing a plan for shutdown".
Voyagers at JPL
Robots leaveing Sol at Heavens-Above.com
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It's Action Stations For Lonely Interstellar Voyager
Huntsville AL (SPX) Jul 14, 2004
When Voyager 1 signals NASA, which it does almost every day, there's usually not much to report. The spacecraft is nearly 9 billion miles (14.5 billion km) from the sun, at the edge of our solar system. It's quiet out there, dark and uneventful.
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