Voyager 1 and 2 turn 46. Here they rank among the oldest space probes

The Martian dust appears to have claimed yet another victim: China confirmed that it is unable to re-establish contact with its Zhurong rover, which has been roaming the Red Planet’s dirt since it touched down there on May 14, 2021. After about one year, it has entered hibernation in order to contend with the harsh Martian winter. Relatively little sunlight. But the 530-pound (240-kilogram) rover didn’t wake up, and missed its December 26 deadline to send a signal back to Earth. He’s been quiet since then.

At the end of April, Beijing finally I confess That the Chinese rover died, most likely because dust had accumulated on its solar panels. Which is a shame, because even though Zhurong may have outlived its planned life of 93 Earth days (it instead lasted an impressive 356 days), it made some pretty remarkable discoveries. Recently, it was announce That Zhurong has discovered evidence that liquid water has been flowing on Mars for the past 1.4 million years is relatively recent in geological terms.

Zhurong joins a number of other now-defunct Mars rovers, including NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rover, which blasted off after six years, 77 days and 14 years and 138 days, respectively. Moreover, failed spacecraft have been in the news lately – including Japanese robotic spacecraft company ispace Inc. which subsequently lost contact with its probe. likely crashed On the moon in late April.

In contrast, NASA recently announce plan to maintain it The Voyager 2 spacecraft, which was first launched more than 45 years ago, and operated for at least another three years, by dipping into reserve fuel. How did a space probe launched in the 1970s outpace so many modern space exploration robots? The simple answer is that not all probes are equal, and failure is often just a dice roll.

But looking at the oldest space probe still in operation could tell us something about the future of space exploration. We’ve compiled a list of the longest-lived space probes that are still actively transmitting data.

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Warning: There are a few probes that are suspected of still working, but we either don’t know their location in deep space or mission control simply isn’t trying to contact them; They are not included here.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft begins the early stages of a Pluto encounter (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Launched in 2006, New Horizons’ primary mission was to obtain a close-up of Pluto, which was completed in July 2015. As the first space probe to visit the dwarf planet, New Horizons has provided stunning images of Pluto’s red and white surface, including the Tombaugh Regio. A light-colored heart-shaped topographical patch. Studying this revealed that Pluto is likely geologically active and has two sons Only active glaciers anywhere outside Earth. (At least until we melt them all).

After flying by Pluto, New Horizons continued its progression and became one of five man-made objects that escaped from the solar system and entered interstellar space. It’s still running and is now studying UFOs in the Kuiper Belt, a disk of material orbiting around the solar system, a bit like the asteroid belt. But things here are made of much different materials.

New Horizons caught a glimpse of one of them, dubbed 486958 Arrokoth, the most distant and most primitive object in the solar system that a spacecraft has ever visited. Named after the Powhatan word for “cloud,” Arrokoth is a double-lobed object that looks like a crushed snowman. It is believed that the outer solar system was mostly Filled with things like Arrokoth When it was formed more than 4.5 billion years ago.

The first color image of Arrokoth 486958, taken at a distance of 85,000 miles (137,000 kilometers) at 4:08 UTC on January 1, 2019, highlights its reddish surface. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

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Mars Odyssey spacecraftArtist’s rendering, from NASA, of the 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft, in mission configuration (NASA/Wiki Commons)
Named as a tribute to Arthur C. Clarke, in reference to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” this robotic satellite has been orbiting and studying Mars longer than any other spacecraft. At this point, according to a recent NASA press release, it was lost circle around Mars more than 94,000 times, or 1.37 billion miles (2.21 billion km) in all that time, has helped map the Martian surface, analyze its chemical and mineral composition, and identify ice deposits that could be used by future Martian astronauts. It has served as an important communications hub for several Mars missions, including the Mars Exploration Rovers, Phoenix Lander, and Curiosity Rover.

Unfortunately, it may not last much longer. Last year, the discovery of a hydrazine fuel source on the 2001 Mars Odyssey was much lower than expected. NASA expects it should last until at least the end of 2025, but the future after that is uncertain.

Artist's concept of Voyager in flightArtist’s concept of Voyager in flight (NASA/JPL/Wiki Commons)
Voyager 1 and 2 were launched in reverse order with an interval of 16 days in 1977. Their goal was to explore the outer planets of our solar system, while Voyager 2 remains the only probe to get close to Uranus and personally, which was briefly zipped. Late eighties. Although the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes were launched before them, both blasted through space at a much higher speed and outpaced them, becoming the first artificial objects to escape the solar system.

Both are still in operation today, even though they are about 12 billion miles (20 billion kilometers) apart. Part of the reason it lasts so much longer than other probes has to do with how it operates. The probes use three plutonium dioxide radioisotope thermoelectric generators. These RTGs are kind of nuclear battery It is powered using heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium-238, making it long lasting and fully functional even in the cold, dark depths of space.

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As with most highly radioactive materials, RTGs Somewhat controversial, especially when these devices are launched on missiles, which sometimes explode and rain debris to the ground. For this reason, RTGs are designed in such a way that even if a rocket explodes or a satellite crashes to the ground, it is unlikely that it will leak or damage anything. RTG stations also pose a risk of contaminating other regions of the solar system that might harbor life, including Titan, one of Jupiter’s moons – highly unlikely, but nonetheless, The probability that astronomers have to plan for.

Fortunately, the Voyager probes are so far away from any major solar system body that we don’t have to worry about that. Instead, the two probes are on an escape trajectory from our solar system. In 300 years, they will pass through the Oort Cloud, a distant, sparse ring around the sun that astronomers believe is the origin of many of the solar system’s comets. Eventually, when its nuclear batteries run out of juice forever, it will continue to circle quietly around the center of mass of the Milky Way galaxy forever.

Meanwhile, the probes continue to send back interesting data about the nature of interstellar space, which means the region behind the sun’s solar wind. In 2021, Voyager 1 picked up a “hum” of plasma waves in interstellar space, which one scientist described at the time as akin to “gentle rain.”

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