Artist's take on the probe that has been proposed for the next interstellar mission. Credit: Interstellar probe/John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/NASA

NASA Plans For Century-Long Interstellar Mission

Equipped with the latest tech, the probe would travel twice as fast as its predecessors. Scientists have estimated the possible distance passed within a century at 74 billion miles.

It is unlikely that any scientist out there believed that the Voyagers would be operational 44 years later. Unfortunately, the spacecraft’s fuel is slowly running out and will soon drop below the minimum that is required to power the flight computer and radio communication systems. In other words, the end of the mission is inevitable and predicted to happen within a decade.

The time has come for a new interstellar mission and NASA has already tasked a team of scientists to plan it. While experts have not yet published a full report, certain details about this possible mission have already been revealed.


An interstellar mission that will surpass Voyager’s discoveries

The Voyagers

In 1977, Voyager 1 and its equally famous twin, Voyager 2, set out to explore the then little-studied worlds. Despite the number in the name, Voyager 2 was the first to be launched into space. The fact is that the probes had to fly around the giant planets from different sides in order to collect as much information about them as possible.

Voyager 2 flew along the so-called slow trajectory and had to approach all four planets, while Voyager 1 explored only Jupiter and Saturn and its path was noticeably shorter. Since scientists from the very beginning knew that the probe launched later would reach the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter earlier than its twin brother, they named it accordingly.

Both Voyagers carry one such golden plate with a message to other civilizations. Credit: NASA
Both Voyagers carry one such golden plate with a message to other civilizations. Credit: NASA

Before sending the Voyagers into space, NASA engineers considered more than 10 thousand possible flight paths, after which they chose only one (and, as it turned out, successful). However, even after such detailed preparation, many were unsure if the mission would succeed.

Almost immediately after the launch, Voyager 2 experienced technical problems, so the engineers were in no hurry to send the second spacecraft into space. Voyager 1 was originally scheduled to launch on September 1, but it was postponed twice.

How are these spacecraft still operational?

Since the program involved the study of distant planets from the very beginning, scientists could not install solar panels on the Voyagers – with the growing distance from the Sun, the intensity of its radiation decreases noticeably.

For example, near the orbit of Neptune, it is about 900 times smaller than that of the Earth. Therefore, the sources of electricity in each of the probes are three radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) – they use plutonium-238 as fuel.

At the time of launch, their power was approximately 470 watts. Since plutonium-238 has a half-life of 87.74 years, generators using it lose 0.78 percent of their capacity per year. Since the power supplies are now producing less than 70% of what they did at launch, it is expected that the spacecraft will shut down in the period between 2025 and 2031. Over the past few decades, various components and instruments have shut down due to the decrease in power, so a complete blackout is only a matter of time.

Voyager 1's location shown here in this image captured by the New Horizons probe earlier this year. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Southwest Research Institute
Voyager 1’s location shown here in this image captured by the New Horizons probe earlier this year. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Southwest Research Institute

A new century-long interstellar mission

NASA has not confirmed this mission yet but it might soon become a reality. If approved, this probe could be launched in 2036 or sometime in the early 2030s. While the Voyagers were set to last at least 12 years, NASA’s next interstellar mission will be planned for a minimum of 50 years. Judging by the longevity of most space probes, rovers, and spacecraft of the past, this minimum will certainly be surpassed.

The proposed design of the probe is based on current technologies that have been put to action as well as upcoming developments that would be completed before the launch of the spacecraft. In each case, the new probe’s tech will be more advanced than that on the Voyagers.

Scientists have estimated the cost of production and launch of the interstellar mission at $1.5 billion which, to date, is the lowest-priced project out of all proposed interstellar missions.

Equipped with the latest tech, the probe would travel twice as fast as its predecessors. This means that it would cover twice the distance in the planned 50 years.

Scientists have estimated the possible distance passed within a century at 74 billion miles. This would be an unmatched success for humanity although it really is not a far distance when you compare it with the distance to the nearest star (Proxima Centauri, 25 trillion miles away).


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Sources:

Forbes. (2016, September 14). After 50 years in space, Voyager will go dark sometime before 2030.
Greenfieldboyce, N. (2021, October 26). If NASA greenlights this interstellar mission, it could last 100 years. NPR.
Greicius, T. (2020, November 2). NASA contacts Voyager 2 using upgraded Deep Space Network Dish. NASA.
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. (n.d.). Interstellar Probe.
NASA. (n.d.). NASA’s Deep Space antenna upgrades to affect Voyager Communications.
Potter, S. (2018, December 10). NASA’s Voyager 2 probe enters Interstellar Space. NASA.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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