Still Working After All These Years: The Voyager Plasma Wave Subsystem

NASA is always keen to highlight the space agency’s many successes, and rightly so — those who pay for these expensive projects have a right to know what they’re getting for their money. And so the news was recently sprinkled with stories of the discovery of electron bursts beyond the edge of our solar system, caused by shock waves from coronal mass ejection (CME) from our Sun reflecting and accelerating electrons in interstellar plasmas. It’s a novel mechanism and an exciting discovery that changes a lot of assumptions about what happens out in the lonely space outside of the Sun’s influence.

The recent discovery is impressive in its own right, but it’s even more stunning when you dig into the details of how it was made: by the 43-year-old Voyager spacecraft, each now about 17 light-hours away from Earth, and each carrying an instrument so simple and efficient that they’re still working all after this time — and which very nearly were left out of the mission’s science payload.

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NASA Making Big Upgrades To Their Big Dish DSS43

When it comes to antenna projects, we usually cover little ones here. From copper traces on a circuit board to hand-made units for ham radio. But every once in a while it’s fun to look at the opposite end of the spectrum, and anyone who craves such change of pace should check out DSS43’s upgrade currently underway.

Part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) built to communicate with spacecraft that venture far beyond Earth, Deep Space Station 43 is a large dish antenna with a diameter of 70 meters and largest of the Canberra, Australia DSN complex. However, the raw reflective surface area is only as good as the radio equipment at its center, which are now outdated and thus focus of this round of upgrades.

The NASA page linked above offers a few pieces of fun trivia about DSS43 and its capabilities. If that whets an appetite for more, head over to Twitter for a huge treasure trove. Whoever is in charge of Canberra DSN’s Twitter account has an endless fountain of facts and very eager to share them in response to questions, usually tagged with #DSS43. Example: the weight of DSS43 is roughly 8.5 million kilograms, 4 million of which is moving structure. They also shared time lapse video clips of work in progress, one of which is embedded after the break.

Taking the uniquely capable DSS43 offline for upgrades does have some consequences, one of which is losing our ability to send commands to distant interplanetary probe Voyager 2. (Apparently smaller DSN dishes can be arrayed to receive data, but only DSS43 can send commands.) Such sacrifices are necessary as an investment for the future, with upgrade completion scheduled for January 2021. Just in time to help support Perseverance (formerly “Mars 2020”) rover‘s arrival in February and many more missions for years to come.

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Engineering For The Long Haul, The NASA Way

The popular press was recently abuzz with sad news from the planet Mars: Opportunity, the little rover that could, could do no more. It took an astonishing 15 years for it to give up the ghost, and it took a planet-wide dust storm that blotted out the sun and plunged the rover into apocalyptically dark and cold conditions to finally kill the machine. It lived 37 times longer than its 90-sol design life, producing mountains of data that will take another 15 years or more to fully digest.

Entire careers were unexpectedly built around Opportunity – officially but bloodlessly dubbed “Mars Exploration Rover-B”, or MER-B – as it stubbornly extended its mission and overcame obstacles both figurative and literal. But “Oppy” is far from the only long-duration success that NASA can boast about. Now that Opportunity has sent its last data, it seems only fitting to celebrate the achievement with a look at exactly how machines and missions can survive and thrive so long in the harshest possible conditions.

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The Deep Space Energy Crisis Could Soon Be Over

On the face of it, powering most spacecraft would appear to be a straightforward engineering problem. After all, with no clouds to obscure the sun, adorning a satellite with enough solar panels to supply its electrical needs seems like a no-brainer. Finding a way to support photovoltaic (PV) arrays of the proper size and making sure they’re properly oriented to maximize the amount of power harvested can be tricky, but having essentially unlimited energy streaming out from the sun greatly simplifies the overall problem.

Unfortunately, this really only holds for spacecraft operating relatively close to the sun. The tyranny of the inverse square law can’t be escaped, and out much beyond the orbit of Mars, the size that a PV array needs to be to capture useful amounts of the sun’s energy starts to make them prohibitive. That’s where radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) begin to make sense.

RTGs use the heat of decaying radioisotopes to generate electricity with thermocouples, and have powered spacecraft on missions to deep space for decades. Plutonium-238 has long been the fuel of choice for RTGs, but in the early 1990s, the Cold War-era stockpile of fuel was being depleted faster than it could be replenished. The lack of Pu-238 severely limited the number of deep space and planetary missions that NASA was able to support. Thankfully, recent developments at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) appear to have broken the bottleneck that had limited Pu-238 production. If it pays off, the deep space energy crisis may finally be over, and science far in the dark recesses of the solar system and beyond may be back on the table.

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Interstellar 8-Track: The Not-So-Low-Tech Data Recorders Of Voyager

On the outside chance that we ever encounter a space probe from an alien civilization, the degree to which the world will change cannot be overestimated. Not only will it prove that we’re not alone, or more likely weren’t, depending on how long said probe has been traveling through space, but we’ll have a bonanza of super-cool new technology to analyze. Just think of the fancy alloys, the advanced biomimetic thingamajigs, the poly-godknowswhat composites. We’ll take a huge leap forward by mimicking the alien technology; the mind boggles.

Sadly, we won’t be returning the favor. If aliens ever snag one of our interstellar envoys, like one of the Voyager spacecraft, they’ll see that we sent them some really old school stuff. While one team of alien researchers will be puzzling over why we’d encode images on a phonograph record, another team will be tearing apart – an 8-track tape recorder?

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Hacking When It Counts: The Pioneer Missions

If the heady early days of space exploration taught us anything, it was how much we just didn’t know. Failure after failure mounted, often dramatic and expensive and sometimes deadly. Launch vehicles exploded, satellites failed to deploy, or some widget decided to give up the ghost at a crucial time, blinding a multi-million dollar probe and ending a mission long before any useful science was done. For the United States, with a deadline to meet for manned missions to the moon, every failure in the late 1950s and early 1960s was valuable, though, at least to the extent that it taught them what not to do next time.

For the scientists planning unmanned missions, there was another, later deadline looming that presented a rare opportunity to expand our knowledge of the outer solar system, a strange and as yet unexplored wilderness with the potential to destroy anything humans could build and send there. Before investing billions in missions to take a Grand Tour of the outer planets, they needed more information. They needed to send out some Pioneers.

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Serious DX: The Deep Space Network

Humanity has been a spacefaring species for barely sixty years now. In that brief time, we’ve fairly mastered the business of putting objects into orbit around the Earth, and done so with such gusto that a cloud of both useful and useless objects now surrounds us. Communicating with satellites in Earth orbit is almost trivial; your phone is probably listening to at least half a dozen geosynchronous GPS birds right now, and any ham radio operator can chat with the astronauts aboard the ISS with nothing more that a $30 handy-talkie and a homemade antenna.

But once our spacecraft get much beyond geosynchronous orbit, communications get a little dicier. The inverse square law and the limited power budget available to most interplanetary craft exact a toll on how much RF energy can be sent back home. And yet the science of these missions demands a reliable connection with enough bandwidth to both control the spacecraft and to retrieve its precious cargo of data. That requires a powerful radio network with some mighty big ears, but as we’ll see, NASA isn’t the only one listening to what’s happening out in deep space. Continue reading “Serious DX: The Deep Space Network”