The Voyager 1 and 2 probes were built to study the outer Solar System, especially Jupiter and Saturn, in a journey of approximately five years, but continued to function until reaching Uranus, Neptune and, more recently, interstellar space. This is very impressive, but the Voyager program already shows some challenges that await NASA on its next long-term mission — especially when it comes to team transition.
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Launched in 1024, Voyager probes have been traveling towards the borders of the Solar System for more than 40 years old. This means that many of the scientists, engineers and other members of the mission’s initial planning team have passed away and had to be replaced by younger specialists. This kind of transition requires plans, and “it’s always hard to talk” about it, according to Ralph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
Unscaled graph showing the distances between the planets, the heliopause, the Oort Cloud and the neighboring star, in astronomical units (Image: Reproduction/NASA/JPL-Caltech)McNutt, who leads the planning of a new mission to interstellar space, is also the youngest member of Voyager’s scientific team, among those present since the launch of the probes. . At 40 years, he says that normally these transitions do not happen indeed on most missions, but as with Voyager, the successor — if approved — will also require transition planning.
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According to the proponents of next mission, which can be launched in 2036 — Voyager’s instruments can be turned off in the beginning of the decade 2036 — the new spacecraft could work for incredible 100 years, making it the most enduring space mission in history. The idea came up a few years ago when NASA officials asked McNutt and his colleagues to devise a plan for a new interstellar mission so that the Voyager legacy would not end.
This new probe would have a multitude of objects to explore at the edges of the Solar System, such as more than 130 dwarf planets and interstellar space itself, about which much is not known because the Voyagers do not have instruments robust enough to investigate, in depth, what exists in this region. With the ability to “fly” faster than its predecessors, the new spacecraft could reach about 120 astronomical units (one astronomical unit being equivalent to the average Sun-Earth distance) in the former 50 years old.
As with Voyager and other NASA missions, such as robotic rovers on Mars, McNutt thinks that the next spacecraft may also simply go forward, surpassing its life estimate, and go more than 130 astronomical units after a century of mission. That would be, more or less, 375 billions of km — a lot, but still far from the neighboring star, Proxima Centauri, which is 40 trillions of km.
In order to prepare the team for the inevitable transition along these possible 100 years of mission, the research team for this proposal came into contact with Janet Vertesi, a sociologist at Princeton University who has studied the organizational aspects of others projects in space. “Many NASA missions have this as a happy problem,” she said. days lasted like years old”. For her, a coordinated plan for a long-term mission has its organizational peculiarities.
Although scientists know that, at some point, they will have to hand over the position to younger ones, they “ they didn’t consider how often this has to happen to be a normal and expected part of mission operations and not a major breach or major issue,” Vertesi said. She compared it to hospitals, where frequent transfers between shifts occur, and this implies that doctors and nurses draw up checklists and other procedures to ensure that the transition goes smoothly.
Illustration shows the position of the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes outside the heliosphere, at different points (Image: Reproduction/NASA/JPL-Caltech)
In other words, the next long-term mission team needs not only to know that the transition will occur multiple times, but also to be “good at thinking and planning”, says the sociologist, who conducted discussions with the researchers to help them in this task. Astronomer Carey Lisse, who is working on the study of the new interstellar probe, said these sessions were “very straightforward and made us think a lot.”Lisse said that if the mission is actually launched in 2036, it will have 75 years old. “That means I know I won’t be on this mission for probably more than ten years after release. This is not just theory or just talk. It will happen several times, probably two or three times at least,” he concluded. It will be necessary to predict how the program will need to change over time.
The result of these reflections led the researchers to realize that they will have to learn to make predictions about the demographics of the community of scientists and engineers around the world, as the mission should be for all of them, not just the original team. , each one must deliver the position with all the necessary tools so that the successor can assume from then on.