Voyager 1 is still alive out there, hurtling into the cosmos more than 15 billion miles away. However, a computer problem has prevented the loyal mission support team in Southern California from knowing much more about the status of one of NASA’s oldest spacecraft.
The computer failure emerged on Nov. 14 and affected Voyager 1’s ability to send telemetry data, such as measurements from the spacecraft’s scientific instruments or basic engineering information about how the probe was performing. As a result, the team has no idea about key parameters related to the ship’s propulsion, power or control systems.
“It would be the biggest miracle if we got it back. We certainly haven’t given up,” Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in an interview with Ars. “There are other things we can try. But this is by far the most serious since I’ve been a project manager.”
Dodd became project manager for NASA’s Voyager mission in 2010, overseeing a small group of engineers responsible for humanity’s exploration of interstellar space. Voyager 1 is the most distant spacecraft ever, moving away from the Sun at 38,000 mph (17 kilometers per second).
Voyager 2, which launched 16 days before Voyager 1 in 1977, is not that far away. It took a quieter route through the solar system, passing by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, while Voyager 1 accelerated during an encounter with Saturn to overtake its sister spacecraft.
For the past two decades, NASA has dedicated Voyager’s instruments to the study of cosmic rays, the magnetic field, and the plasma environment in interstellar space. They don’t take pictures anymore. Both probes have traveled beyond the heliopause, where the flow of particles emanating from the sun flows into the interstellar medium.
There are currently no other operational spacecraft exploring interstellar space. NASA’s New Horizons probe, which passed by Pluto in 2015, is on track to reach interstellar space in the 2040s.
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The latest problem with Voyager 1 lies with the probe’s Flight Data Subsystem (FDS), one of three computers on the spacecraft that work alongside a central command and control computer and another device that oversees flight control. attitude and orientation.
The FDS is responsible for collecting scientific and engineering data from the spacecraft’s sensor network and then combining the information into a single data packet in binary code: a series of 1s and 0s. A separate component called the FDS Telemetry actually sends the data packet back to Earth via Voyager’s 12-foot (3.7-meter) satellite dish.
In November, data packets transmitted by Voyager 1 manifested a repeating pattern of ones and zeros as if stuck, according to NASA. Dodd said JPL engineers have spent the better part of three months trying to diagnose the cause of the problem. He said the engineering team is “99.9 percent sure” that the problem originated with the FDS, which appears to be having trouble “syncing frames” of data.
So far, the ground team believes that the most likely explanation for the problem is some corrupted memory in the FDS. However, because of the computer problem, engineers lack detailed data from Voyager 1 that could lead them to the root of the problem. “It’s probably somewhere in FDS memory,” Dodd said. “Some of it got flipped or corrupted. But without telemetry, we can’t see where the FDS memory corruption is.”