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A New Plan for Keeping NASA's Oldest Explorers Going (nasa.gov)
59 points by lelf 9 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 20 comments

What I find fascinating about the Voyager probes is that we can't replace them in less than decades, barring some new tech breakthroughs. They're so far out there that in all likelihood it will be many centuries before anything is further out than them.

V1 is over 145 AU from the sun, traveling 3.6AU per year, or around 60,000km/h, 17km/s. Even if you got a probe moving twice as fast, it would take close to 40 years to catch up. And moving a probe twice as fast (after escaping the sun's gravity well) would take a heck of a lot of energy. More likely you'd need a bunch of gravity assists from other plants, and waiting for the right time for those takes even longer.

They're irreplaceable. They're ancient. And they're still doing science.

Not quite true based on current roadmaps. If BFR pans out in the next 5 years, it could pretty easily launch a significantly faster probe that would pass the Voyager probes in about a decade (with a gravity assist from Jupiter and/or the sun). This was discussed in conjunction with catching Oumuamua [1].

However, if we're stuck with the launch capability of Falcon Heavy, it would take multiple launches with in-orbit docking/refueling to do it. Still possible in a 10ish year horizon, but too expensive to be worth it.

[1] https://www.centauri-dreams.org/2017/11/10/project-lyra-send...

Wow, seriously? I'm a huge SpaceX fanboy, but I hadn't even considered the BFR as a probe launcher.

But then, that does sort of align with my statement: it's gonna need a loooot of energy to catch up.

But wouldn't that be neat? BFR is going to be relatively cheap to launch so we could do a lot with it. Imagine if it launched a probe similar to Voyager, but built to go faster, farther out, even more resilient, even more power and instruments. Throw in a solar sail to gain even further speed on its way out.

The future keeps looking cooler and cooler, if we can just not kill each other.

It always upsets me that there aren’t assembly lines of successful designs, flinging them in every direction

Well the voyager probes were designed to visit planets, not just be flung in to space. Their very path away from the sun involved a ton of planetary passes. Oh and the probes are pretty big and heavy.

What has been discussed is the creation of small probes designed just to be flung in many directions. We just haven’t felt the need to prioritize that over other possible missions. My hope is that this is something we will do in the next couple of decades as space travel becomes cheaper.

There's a lot of reasons we don't do that. To start there's limited value to be had just throwing them out in all directions. The Voyager probes were able to do a lot because they were on very specific paths that visited a lot of planets and was able to use them to get a boost at the same time to reach the incredible speeds they got to.

Next technology has advanced really quickly so by the time one is designed, built, and tested there's way better technology we could include in terms of cameras, computers and sensors so there's little incentive to use the same instrumentation over and over again because we can always pretty much always get better science out of newer equipment. On top of that there's limited returns on returning the same equipment to the same body because we've already gotten most of that data before.

Next if we're talking about surface probes they're very specific to the location they're going to and the science we want to perform there. For example until we made Curiosity most of our rovers were solar powered which doesn't really work much further out in the solar system like on Jupiter's moons. The lack of atmosphere on many potential destinations is also a big problem because it massively limits the size of potential probes because they also have to carry their own landing fuel all the way out there.

Finally because of all of that there's not really the money for launching missions that won't probably yield that much new science. They'll return a lot of data to be sure but there's limited new insights because the existing data already gets analyzed and examined to within an inch of it's life to wring as much information as possible. I do agree we should be spending a lot more on planetary exploration but there's a lot of reasons each probe/rover we send out is largely designed and built from scratch.

There is a lot of empty space out there.

A good amount of consideration was given to the time, direction and magnitude of various voyager flings.


It’s not really practical. For one, that’s expensive. In addition, our space crafts are becoming increasingly better designed. Eventually, as in 50 years, it’s increasingly likely we can do your suggestion at 1/1000 the cost with more sensors. It probably makes more sense to invest in developing future technology than doing your suggestion today.

I'm not arguing your point but I am wondering, will we say the same thing in 10/20/50 years?

I agree. I always hoped as a child, that we would be throwing probes everywhere we could (heck I assumed that was already the case!).

I hope that spacex and the rest keep going strong, so that when my son reaches my age we are there

Successful in this context just meant a hugeass rocket and a good trajectory.

Yes, turns out New Horizons is (or has been) moving faster, but it is slowing down and will not catch them: https://space.stackexchange.com/questions/3520/when-will-new...

I wonder if these instruments are actually providing accurate measurements though... if they weren’t designed for such temperatures how can we be sure that they are not introducing artifacts?

Well I don’t think scientists blindly trust the instruments. They probably say “instrument X provided measurement Y” and then they can argue for decades as to the accuracy of the measurement.

We don't know if they worked to begin with. That region of space is unexplored, there is no baseline to compare with to see if the instrument gives sensible data.

The fact that we can even receive the minuscule signal from these things is incredible.

What a great human achievement.

It's also impressive they can receive our signals. For us receiving we can use I guess a bigger dish. For them receiving I guess we can just blast a stronger signal.

They pop up on DSN too - https://eyes.nasa.gov/dsn/dsn.html

Have we sent any missions over the solar poles?

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