NASA’s Voyager 1 Spacecraft Is Speaking Gibberish

NASA’s Voyager 1 Spacecraft Is Speaking Gibberish

NASA’s iconic space probe is having trouble communicating with its home planet due to a computer glitch, forcing engineers to resort to decades-old manuals to come up with a way to fix the 46-year-old mission.

Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 is now more than 24 billion kilometres away from Earth. The spacecraft has been exploring the outer regions of the solar system, but it is recently unable to send back any science or engineering data due to an issue with one of its three onboard computers, NASA said.

The spacecraft’s flight data system (FDS) collects data from Voyager’s science instruments, as well as engineering data about the health of the spacecraft. That data is combined into a single package so it can be transmitted to Earth through one of the probe’s subsystems, the telemetry modulation unit (TMU), in binary code.

FDS and TMU, however, have been having trouble communicating with each other. As a result, TMU began sending data to mission control in a repeating pattern of ones and zeroes, as though it were stuck. The team behind the mission believes an issue with FDS is the source of the communication breakdown.

“This past weekend the team tried to restart the FDS and return it to the state it was in before the issue began, but the spacecraft still isn’t returning useable data,” NASA wrote in a statement.

Voyager 1 and its sister ship Voyager 2 have been active longer than any other spacecraft in history. An impressive feat, but one that comes with unique challenges. To come up with a solution for the space probe, NASA engineers are looking through original documents that were written decades ago. “As a result, it takes time for the team to understand how a new command will affect the spacecraft’s operations in order to avoid unintended consequences,” the space agency wrote.

The spacecraft is so far away that it takes 22.5 hours for commands from Earth to reach Voyager 1 and vice versa. That means the mission team has to wait 45 hours to find out whether the command they sent out was effective.

This isn’t the first time Voyager 1 stopped making sense. Last year, the space probe began transmitting garbled telemetry data that didn’t match up with its actual location and orientation. At the time, NASA engineers figured out that the issue was a result of a faulty computer that was corrupting the data.

Despite some minor hiccups, Voyager 1 is still doing pretty well for an aging spacecraft and NASA’s longest-operating mission. Voyager 1 crossed into interstellar space in August 2012 to study the outer solar system and explore beyond the Sun’s heliosphere, and has travelled farther from Earth than any other spacecraft.

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