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NASA is still trying to restore Voyager 1 operation

For more than 45 years, the Voyager 1 spacecraft has traveled through space, crossing the boundaries of our solar system and becoming the first man-made object to travel into interstellar space. During its journey, Voyager 1 transmitted new data about Jupiter and Saturn, and also captured the loneliest image of Earth. But perhaps nothing is lonelier than an aging spacecraft that has lost the ability to communicate while traveling billions of kilometers from home.

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Voyager 1 has been malfunctioning for the past few months, sending nonsensical data to the control center. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have been trying to solve this problem, but given how far away the spacecraft is now, the process has been extremely slow. Things look pretty bleak for an aging mission that may be nearing its end. However, NASA is not yet ready to abandon its most distant spacecraft.

 

The team continues to gather information and is preparing some steps that they hope will put them on the path to either understanding the root of the problem or solving it.

 

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The anomaly may be related to the spacecraft’s flight data system (FDS). FDS collects data from Voyager’s science instruments as well as engineering data about the spacecraft’s health and combines them into a single package that is transmitted to Earth through one of the probe’s subsystems, the telemetry modulation unit (TMU) in binary code.

 

However, FDS and TMU may have difficulty communicating with each other. As a result, the TMU sends data to mission control in a repeating pattern of ones and zeroes.

 

The problem first arose in May 2022, when the probe suddenly began sending meaningless position and control data. Engineers solved the problem by sending telemetry data through one of the spacecraft’s other computers. In December 2023, Voyager 1 spoke in gibberish again.

 

And since Voyager 1 is 24.4 billion kilometers away, flying through interstellar space at a speed of 17 kilometers per second, there is no “switching it off and on again.” Because of Voyager 1’s long distance, it takes JPL engineers about two days to send a signal to the spacecraft and receive a response (22 hours each way).

 

They then spend a few days mulling over the information they’ve received, looking through old documents to see if they can make sense of the small pieces of information they can gather (since the telemetry data itself is unusable), and then send another command (which either tries change something on the spacecraft, or provide more information.It takes about a week, which is why the process is so slow.

 

Voyager 1 was launched in 1977, less than a month after its twin Voyager 2 began its own journey into space. But thanks to its faster route, Voyager 1 exited the asteroid belt ahead of its brother, making close approaches to Jupiter and Saturn, where it discovered two Jupiter moons, Teba and Metis, as well as five new moons and a new ring, called the G-ring, around Saturn. Voyager 1 entered interstellar space in August 2012, becoming the first spacecraft to cross the border of our solar system.

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