Dusting Off Voyager 1’s Thrusters

7:06 minutes

Voyager 1 leaving interstellar space
An artist’s depiction of NASA’s Voyager 1 entering interstellar space. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Even after 37 years in space, the thrusters on the Voyager 1 spacecraft still work. Recently, space scientists monitoring the distant craft needed to slightly reposition the radio transmission system on board to allow Earth to keep listening to the faint signals—but the system Voyager normally uses to keep its communications antenna pointing toward Earth was failing. Happily, though, Voyager 1’s trajectory course maneuvering thrusters still worked, allowing the adjustment to be made.

Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight, joins Ira to talk about the maneuver, and some of the other week’s stories in science, including a report on the risks of oil pipeline spills, disputed research about gender and appearance, and the discovery of a duck-like dinosaur.

Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, our annual rundown of the best science books of the year. And we want to know what your favorite science books for 2017 were, so give us a call. Our number, 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK. Or you can tweet us @scifri.

But first, the Voyager 1 spacecraft is the farthest-from-Earth human-made object, AND it’s no longer even in our solar system. Recently, space scientists monitoring the spacecraft needed to slightly reposition the radio transmission system on board to allow Earth to keep listening to the faint signals. But the system Voyager normally uses to keep its communications antenna pointed toward the Earth? Well, it was failing. What to do? Here to talk about the creative solution and other selected subjects in science is Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science writer at 538. Welcome back to the program, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s going on with the Voyager 1?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, so normally Voyager uses a system of thrusters to kind of adjust that communications antenna and keep it pointing toward Earth so that we can actually see what it is seeing, understand what it is finding. And all of a sudden that system of thrusters stopped working.

So they came up with this solution, which was to use a different set of thrusters that have not been turned on since, well, since I was a fetus. And the last time the system was used was November 8, 1980, and somehow it still works. They turned it on. The other thrusters worked great. And they got Voyager pointing back the way it needed to go.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think there’s got to be somebody in the control room who says, OK, here we go, right? Something like that. Let’s give it a go.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: It’s kind of amazing. I can’t imagine taking a car even from a relatively benign environment like a farm outbuilding and turning on an engine that hasn’t been turned on in 37 years and having it work.

IRA FLATOW: OK, so it worked. So what does that mean for Voyager’s journey now?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: It basically means that we will get an extra two or three years out of Voyager than we thought we would. We had sort of assumed that when these thrusters failed we were going to stop being able to get signals back from Voyager. And now it looks like we have another way of getting it pointed toward us.

IRA FLATOW: It just keeps going. OK, let’s move on to a little closer to home. There’s news this week about a controversial oil pipeline, something we’ve heard about?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yep, the Keystone oil pipeline sprung a leak near the town of Aberdeen, South Dakota, on November 16th, and it spilled about 5,000 barrels of oil into the ground. But now Reuters is reporting that the risk assessments that were used to sell state governments on that existing pipeline were drastically out of step with what the system’s actual failure rate has been.

So these regulatory documents that were used to obtain a South Dakota operating permit, Trans-Canada claimed that a leak of more than 50 barrels of oil shouldn’t occur more than once every 7 to 11 years. And instead, what we’ve seen is that that pipeline has already spilled about 5,800 barrels in three different spills in just seven years. And all of those took place in the Dakotas.

IRA FLATOW: It was just a spill a few weeks ago, wasn’t there?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Right. Yeah that’s the one on November 16th. That’s the biggest. And this document is suggesting that really either Trans-Canada was severely underplaying its risk assessment process, or they are doing something that’s not meeting the requirements for construction and environmental safety. So there are South Dakota commissioners that are now questioning whether the company violated its license.

IRA FLATOW: There’s no talk about having to redo the license or anything?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: I don’t I don’t know personally about that, but it sounds like there is going to be some political pressure applied here.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s go on to other news. Speaking of controversy, there’s controversy over some studies involving gender and appearance that are quite interesting.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Right. There’s a French psychologist named Nicolas Guegeun, who made a name for himself publishing research that seemed to shore up some of these modern Western gender norms as innate fact. Things like women are sexier when they wear high heels and men are more likely to help a woman with feminine flowing hair.

But there are a number of things going on here. First, Guegeun publishes a ton of papers every year. He’s had eight come out in 2017 alone. And you know these aren’t theoretical papers, either. They involve a lot of real-world experimentation and collaborators. But the collaborators are almost never mentioned or credited.

And these researchers, James Heathers and Nick Brown, they also found some peculiarities in Guegeun’s data sets. Things like these tidy round averages that it’s unlikely anyone could possibly reach given the number of participants you had to divide the averages by. Or effect sizes that were larger and more significant than anything you’d usually expect to see in social psychology.

So there’s some big problems. And over the last couple of years of making inquiries about this, Guegeun has really failed to respond to most of the questions this pair has asked him about, so now they are making these findings public online in blog posts.

IRA FLATOW: Well, so maybe we’ll get a little bit of pressure for him to respond.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, I mean it sounds like it’s going to be– it made me think a lot of like the arsenic life controversy from several years ago where instead of addressing critiques of a paper through the slow peer-review process, people went straight to the internet, and retractions happened pretty quickly after that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Finally, there is a newly found relative of the velociraptor, but it’s a dino duck they’re calling?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: So it looks sort of like a swan with flippers for hands, and crocodile teeth, and velociraptor claws.

IRA FLATOW: Made by committee, obviously.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, you know it is so weird looking that when this first turned up in a private collection in 2015, a lot of researchers thought it was a fake. But they’ve put it through some scanning tests with a particle accelerator, and it looks like this rapto duck swan quack penguin is the real deal.


MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: It might even be the first aquatic dinosaur ever found. Things like plesiosaurs that we’re used to thinking about as dinosaurs, those aren’t actually dinosaurs, they’re reptiles. So this could be our aquatic dinosaur. You know I was just thinking that it’s kind of–

IRA FLATOW: The link.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: The link, yeah. You know it’s a reminder evolution doesn’t always make you handsome, but it just might make you handy.

IRA FLATOW: That’s why I have a face for radio. Thank you, Maggie Maggie Koerth-Baker is senior science writer at 538.

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