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They don't make them like this any more

11 February 2020

Over the years I have had a lot of electronics gear.

Radios, TVs, computers, game consoles, tape recorders... the list seems endless.

Most have shared a common trait however... they eventually fail.

Whether it's capacitors drying out, semiconductors failing or just a simple breakage due to physical shock, stuff eventually stops working.

If you're very lucky then you'll have got enough use from the product that you won't feel too upset when it fails. In fact, many people these days seemingly can't wait for their gadgets to break so as to give them an excuse to upgrade to a newer, fancier, better version.

Things aren't that simple in space though.

Hoisting a piece of electronic equipment beyond the reach of Earth's atmosphere is not a trivial nor inexpensive operation and that means the failure of such gear is always a disappointment.

Over the few decades that we've been using such technology to extend our understanding of space and the universe beyond our own planet's thin ecosphere, there have been a lot of failures. This speaks to the difficulty and complexity of creating systems that can withstand the extremely harsh environment that exists beyond our comfortable blanket of air.

Not only are the temperature variations massive, depending upon whether you're facing the sun or the darkness of space, but there is a constant stream of cosmic rays and other ionizing radiation which seeks to flip your bits and degrade your polymers in double-quick time.

Missions to Mars have been plagued with a raft of failures, meaning that there's only a slightly better than even chance of such a probe or craft making it to its intended destination in working condition. Even the last Indian probe that was to land on our close neighbour the Moon was a failure.

However, along with the failures and disappointments there have been some stunning successes as well.

The Mars rovers stand out as perfect examples of this. Right from the start, these craft have massively exceeded their original mission goals and sent back data for many years, rather than the few short months planned for them.

Constant innovation and hard work by scientists and engineers back on Earth ensured that even when things went wrong, more often than not there was a work-around or a fix that could be created and delivered across the empty void of space that seperates the two planets.

However, even these achievements have been dwarfed by the success of the Voyager program, and that was really demonstrated this week.

Voyager 2 was launched almost half a century ago and despatched on a mission which eventually saw it leave the solar system and head out into interstellar space. It is now more than 18 billion Km from home and was still working... until late last month when something went wrong.

On January 28th, Voyager 2 had a problem. A pre-programmed reorientation maneuver apparently went wrong and some of the onboard systems shut down as a result of low power.

In true NASA tradition, engineers toiled away until a fix for the problem was created and uploaded, across all that inky darkness -- a 17 hour journey at the speed of light. Due to its extreme distance and the delays involved in such communications, it took a day and half before the results were confirmed -- everything was up and working again.

Unfortunately Voyager 2's days are numbered though. Unlike many other probes, V2's distance from the sun means it can't rely on solar panels to keep it powered-up. Instead, it uses a radioactive source to heat thermopiles in order to create the electricity it needs to power its onboard systems. Sadly, that nuclear material will eventually become so depleted that it can no longer generate sufficient heat. Scientists say that by the middle of this decade the probe will fall silent and drift off into the darkness of interstellar space forever, a silent testiment to mankind's innovation and quest for knowledge.

So, with all this in mind, why the hell do I keep having to buy a new mobile phone every couple of years?

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