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PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft experienced a computer glitch that caused a loss of communication between the 46-year-old probe and its mission team on Earth.
Engineers are currently trying to solve the problem as the ancient spacecraft explores an uncharted cosmic region along the outer edges of the solar system.
Voyager 1 is currently the furthest spacecraft from Earth at about 15 billion miles, while its twin Voyager 2 has traveled more than 12 billion miles from our planet. Both are in interstellar space, and are the only spacecraft operating outside the heliosphere, the Sun’s bubble of magnetic fields and particles that extends far beyond Pluto’s orbit.
Initially designed to last five years, the Voyager probes are the two longest operating spacecraft in history. Their exceptionally long lifetimes mean that both spacecraft have provided additional insights into our solar system and beyond after achieving their initial goals of flying around Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune decades ago.
But their unexpected long journeys were not without challenges.
Voyager 1 has three computers on board, including a flight data system that collects information from the spacecraft’s science instruments and combines it with engineering data that reflects Voyager 1’s current health. Mission control on Earth receives that data in binary code, or a string. . Of ones and zeros.
But now Voyager 1’s flight data system appears to be stuck in auto-repeat mode, in a scenario reminiscent of the movie “Groundhog Day.”
Long distance fault
The mission team first noticed the problem on November 14, when the communications module in the flight data system began transmitting a repetitive pattern of ones and zeros, as if trapped in a loop.
While the spacecraft is still able to receive and execute commands sent from the mission team, a problem with the communications module means no science or engineering data from Voyager 1 will be returned to Earth.
The Voyager team sent commands over the weekend for the spacecraft to restart the flight data system, but no usable data has yet been returned, according to NASA.
NASA engineers are currently trying to gather more information about the root cause of the problem before determining the next steps to correct it, said Kala Coffield, a media relations specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which is managing the mission. The process may take weeks.
The last time Voyager 1 had a similar, but not identical, problem with its flight data system was in 1981, and the current problem does not appear to be related to other glitches the spacecraft has encountered in recent years, Coffield said.
Because both Voyager probes are undergoing new experiments, mission team members only have original manuals written from decades ago to refer to, and they are unable to account for the challenges the spacecraft faces as they age.
The Voyager team wants to consider all possible implications before sending further commands to the spacecraft to ensure its operations are not affected in an unexpected way.
Voyager 1 is so far away that it takes 22.5 hours for commands sent from Earth to reach the spacecraft. In addition, the team must wait 45 hours to receive a response.
Keeping Voyager’s probes alive
As the aging twin Voyager probes continued to explore the cosmos, the team slowly turned off the hardware on these “seniors” to conserve power and extend their missions, Voyager project manager Susan Dodd previously told CNN.
Along the way, both spacecraft encountered unexpected problems and outages, including a seven-month period in 2020 when Voyager 2 was unable to communicate with Earth. In August, the mission team used long-range “screaming” technology to restore communications with Voyager 2 after a command inadvertently pointed the spacecraft’s antenna in the wrong direction.
While the team hopes to recover the regular flow of data sent back by Voyager 1, the mission’s main value lies in its long duration, Coffield said. For example, scientists want to see how particles and magnetic fields change as probes fly away from the heliosphere. But this data set will be incomplete if Voyager 1 cannot return information while it lasts.
The mission team has been creative in its strategies to expand the power supplies of both spacecraft in recent years to allow them to continue their record-breaking missions.
“The Voyagers perform far beyond their primary missions and longer than any other spacecraft in history,” Coffield said. “So, while the engineering team is working hard to keep them alive, we also expect issues to arise.”
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