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Voyager: The Spacecraft

The twin Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft are exploring where nothing from Earth has flown before. Continuing their more-than-40-year journey since their 1977 launches, they each are much farther away from Earth and the Sun than Pluto.

The primary mission was the exploration of Jupiter and Saturn. After making a string of discoveries there – such as active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io and intricacies of Saturn’s rings – the mission was extended. 

Voyager 2 went on to explore Uranus and Neptune, and is still the only spacecraft to have visited those outer planets. The adventurers’ current mission, the Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM), will explore the outermost edge of the Sun’s domain. And beyond.

Spacecraft Instruments

‘BUS’ Housing Electronics

The basic structure of the spacecraft is called the “bus,” which carries the various engineering subsystems and scientific instruments. It is like a large ten-sided box. Each of the ten sides of the bus contains a compartment (a bay) that houses various electronic assemblies.

Cosmic Ray Subsystem (CRS)

The Cosmic Ray Subsystem (CRS) looks only for very energetic particles in plasma, and has the highest sensitivity of the three particle detectors on the spacecraft. Very energetic particles can often be found in the intense radiation fields surrounding some planets (like Jupiter). Particles with the highest-known energies come from other stars. The CRS looks for both.

High-Gain Antenna (HGA)

The High-Gain Antenna (HGA) transmits data to Earth on two frequency channels (the downlink). One at about 8.4 gigahertz, is the X-band channel and contains science and engineering data. For comparison, the FM radio band is centered around 100 megahertz.

Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS)

The Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) is a modified version of the slow scan vidicon camera designed that were used in the earlier Mariner flights. The ISS consists of two television-type cameras, each with eight filters in a commandable Filter Wheel mounted in front of the vidicons. One has a low resolution 200 mm wide-angle lens, while the other uses a higher resolution 1500 mm narrow-angle lens.

Infrared Interferometer Spectrometer and Radiometer (IRIS)

The Infrared Interferometer Spectrometer and Radiometer (IRIS) actually acts as three separate instruments. First, it is a very sophisticated thermometer. It can determine the distribution of heat energy a body is emitting, allowing scientists to determine the temperature of that body or substance.

Second, the IRIS is a device that can determine when certain types of elements or compounds are present in an atmosphere or on a surface.

Third, it uses a separate radiometer to measure the total amount of sunlight reflected by a body at ultraviolet, visible and infrared frequencies.

Low-Energy Charged Particles (LECP)

The Low-Energy Charged Particles (LECP) looks for particles of higher energy than the Plasma Science instrument, and it overlaps with the Cosmic Ray Subsystem (CRS). It has the broadest energy range of the three sets of particle sensors. 

The LECP can be imagined as a piece of wood, with the particles of interest playing the role of the bullets. The faster a bullet moves, the deeper it will penetrate the wood. Thus, the depth of penetration measures the speed of the particles. The number of “bullet holes” over time indicates how many particles there are in various places in the solar wind, and at the various outer planets. The orientation of the wood indicates the direction from which the particles came.

Magnetometer (MAG)

Although the Magnetometer (MAG) can detect some of the effects of the solar wind on the outer planets and moons, its primary job is to measure changes in the Sun’s magnetic field with distance and time, to determine if each of the outer planets has a magnetic field, and how the moons and rings of the outer planets interact with those magnetic fields.

Optical Calibration Target
The target plate is a flat rectangle of known color and brightness, fixed to the spacecraft so the instruments on the movable scan platform (cameras, infrared instrument, etc.) can point to a predictable target for calibration purposes.

Photopolarimeter Subsystem (PPS)

The Photopolarimeter Subsystem (PPS) uses a 0.2 m telescope fitted with filters and polarization analyzers. The experiment is designed to determine the physical properties of particulate matter in the atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn and the rings of Saturn by measuring the intensity and linear polarization of scattered sunlight at eight wavelengths. 

The experiment also provided information on the texture and probable composition of the surfaces of the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn.

Planetary Radio Astronomy (PRA) and Plasma Wave Subsystem (PWS)

Two separate experiments, The Plasma Wave Subsystem and the Planetary Radio Astronomy experiment, share the two long antennas which stretch at right-angles to one another, forming a “V”.

Plasma Science (PLS)

The Plasma Science (PLS) instrument looks for the lowest-energy particles in plasma. It also has the ability to look for particles moving at particular speeds and, to a limited extent, to determine the direction from which they come. 

The Plasma Subsystem studies the properties of very hot ionized gases that exist in interplanetary regions. One plasma detector points in the direction of the Earth and the other points at a right angle to the first.

Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTG)

Three RTG units, electrically parallel-connected, are the central power sources for the mission module. The RTGs are mounted in tandem (end-to-end) on a deployable boom. The heat source radioisotopic fuel is Plutonium-238 in the form of the oxide Pu02. In the isotopic decay process, alpha particles are released which bombard the inner surface of the container. The energy released is converted to heat and is the source of heat to the thermoelectric converter.

Ultraviolet Spectrometer (UVS)

The Ultraviolet Spectrometer (UVS) is a very specialized type of light meter that is sensitive to ultraviolet light. It determines when certain atoms or ions are present, or when certain physical processes are going on. 

The instrument looks for specific colors of ultraviolet light that certain elements and compounds are known to emit.

Learn more about the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft HERE.

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