One pressing concern relates to the gradual buildup of propellant residue in the spacecraft thrusters, which are crucial for maintaining their antennas' Earthward orientation for data transmission. The thrusters can tilt and turn the spacecraft in three axes-pitch, yaw, and roll. During these movements, the thrusters release small quantities of propellant. Over the decades, this has led to a slow accumulation of residue in the propellant inlet tubes, which are about 25 times narrower than the external fuel lines.
To mitigate this issue, engineers recently updated the command parameters for both Voyagers to allow more generous rotation angles-nearly one degree more in each direction-before the thrusters are activated. This change will reduce the overall frequency of thruster firings, thereby minimizing residue accumulation. Additionally, the missions have adopted fewer but longer-duration firings to cut back on the total number of activations.
This tactical shift was carefully calibrated to have minimal adverse impacts. While there could be brief lapses in data transmission-akin to short disconnections during a phone call-the approach is expected to facilitate a more efficient long-term data collection. The expectation is that these changes will prevent a complete clogging of the inlet tubes for at least another five years, and potentially much longer. Further steps could be taken in the years ahead to further extend the thrusters' operational lifetimes.
Engineers are also turning their attention to software integrity. Last year, Voyager 1's onboard computer began sending back corrupted status reports. Upon investigation, it was revealed that the Attitude Articulation and Control System (AACS) was misdirecting commands, causing them to be written into the computer's memory rather than being executed.
Although the exact cause remains unidentified, a preventive software patch has been designed to avert any recurrence. As Voyager Project Manager Suzanne Dodd from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory noted, "This patch is like an insurance policy that will protect us in the future and help us keep these probes going as long as possible."
Given the extreme distance between Earth and the spacecraft-over 18 light-hours-one of the significant challenges is ensuring that the patch doesn't inadvertently compromise other essential systems. The code has therefore undergone rigorous review and testing. As an extra precaution, Voyager 2 will serve as a testbed for the patch before it is applied to Voyager 1.
The upload and memory readout procedure for the patch is slated for October 20. If no issues arise, the patch's effectiveness will be evaluated on October 28.
Originally designed for a four-year term to explore Saturn and Jupiter, the Voyagers' mission scope has been progressively expanded. Voyager 2 remains the only spacecraft to have visited Uranus and Neptune. Both probes have ventured beyond the heliosphere-the protective layer of particles and magnetic fields surrounding our Sun-with Voyager 1 crossing this boundary in 2012 and Voyager 2 in 2018.
Project Scientist Linda Spilker remarked, "This far into the mission, the engineering team is being faced with a lot of challenges for which we just don't have a playbook. But they continue to come up with creative solutions."
Keeping these spacefaring pioneers operational, especially given their advanced age and the unique scientific data they provide, underscores the significant engineering and problem-solving capabilities within NASA's Voyager team. As the spacecraft continue their unprecedented journeys, these measures bolster the prospects for continued exploration and discovery.
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