How Is Voyager Still Talking After All These Years?

The tech news channels were recently abuzz with stories about strange signals coming back from Voyager 1. While the usual suspects jumped to the usual conclusions — aliens!! — in the absence of a firm explanation for the anomaly, some of us looked at this event as an opportunity to marvel at the fact that the two Voyager spacecraft, now in excess of 40 years old, are still in constant contact with those of us back on Earth, and this despite having covered around 20 billion kilometers in one of the most hostile environments imaginable.

Like many NASA programs, Voyager has far exceeded its original design goals, and is still reporting back useful science data to this day. But how is that even possible? What 1970s-era radio technology made it onto the twin space probes that allowed it to not only fulfill their primary mission of exploring the outer planets, but also let them go into an extended mission to interstellar space, and still remain in two-way contact? As it turns out, there’s nothing magical about Voyager’s radio — just solid engineering seasoned with a healthy dash of redundancy, and a fair bit of good luck over the years.

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Inside A 20-Watt Traveling Wave Tube Amplifier From Apollo

When the Apollo astronauts made their way to the Moon, their communication equipment had a transmission power of a mere 20 W, which the sensitive receivers back on Earth managed to pick up. But this isn’t just any amplifier, it’s a Traveling Wave Tube amplifier (TWT), as [Ken Shirriff] explains in a recent article.

The most fascinating thing about these TWTs isn’t just their role during the Apollo missions, but the fact that even today this type of vacuum tube is still among the most efficient and compact types of RF amplifier. As a result today’s high-tech satellites still commonly feature these devices.

As always, [Ken] entertains and enlightens us with how the TWT and the rest of the amplifier system worked.