Skip to Content
Space

NASA is trying to save Voyager 2 after a power glitch shut down its instruments

January 30, 2020
NASA Voyager 2
NASA Voyager 2NASA

Last Saturday, Voyager 2’s software shut down all five of the scientific instruments onboard because the spacecraft was consuming way too much power. Engineers at NASA don’t know what triggered this energy spike and are currently trying to get the interstellar probe back to normal operations. 

What happened: About 11.5 billion miles away, Voyager 2 was supposed to make a scheduled 360-degree rotation that would help calibrate its magnetometer (used to measure magnetic fields). The spacecraft delayed this move for still unknown reasons, leaving two other internal systems running at high power. The onboard software decided to offset this power deficit by shutting down the five scientific instruments still working.

NASA engineers shut down one of the power-hungry systems and turned the science instruments back on. But the spacecraft is still not cleared for normal operations and is not collecting any new data for now.

Power struggles: Voyager 2 was launched in 1977, and its primary mission was supposed to last five years. In 2018, it officially left the solar system. In order to keep the spacecraft running properly 42 years later, NASA has had to carefully manage power consumption for the instruments and the probe's heaters. Both Voyager spacecraft have seen their power efficiencies drop by 40% over the last four decades.

The spacecraft is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). Plutonium-238 decays to create heat, which the RTG turns into electrical power for the spacecraft. 

What’s next: It takes 17 hours for data from Earth to get to Voyager 2, and vice versa. This lag means it will take several days to solve the spacecraft’s woes. As it is, the RTG is only expected to last another five years before the plutonium-238 can no longer provide enough heat to power the probe's instruments, so Voyager 2 is on its last hurrah anyway

Deep Dive

Space

How the James Webb Space Telescope broke the universe

Scientists were in awe of the flood of data that arrived when the new space observatory booted up.

NASA’s return to the moon is off to a rocky start

Artemis aims to deliver astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2025, but it’s riding on an old congressional pet project.

James Webb Space Telescope: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

A marvel of precision engineering, JWST could revolutionize our view of the early universe.

What’s next in space

The moon, private space travel, and the wider solar system will all have major missions over the next 12 months.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.