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NASA Races to Decode Strange Messages from Voyager 1

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Dec 18, 2023

NASA engineers are working around the clock to diagnose and fix an issue with the Voyager 1 spacecraft that has left it transmitting garbled data back to Earth. The probe, launched in 1977 and now operating in interstellar space over 14 billion miles from Earth, began sending back strange messages with seemingly random bits last weekend.

Voyager 1 Enters Safe Mode After Glitch

On Sunday, December 10, Voyager 1’s flight data system, which controls various spacecraft functions, started generating invalid telemetry data [1]. Commands sent from NASA’s Deep Space Network to try and recover the system only resulted in more gibberish data streams being transmitted back [2]. With Voyager 1 not responding as expected, mission controllers placed the probe into safe mode – a state where only essential systems operate as engineers try to diagnose what went wrong [3].

Safe mode cuts back significantly on Voyager 1’s science operations and data collection. The probe currently has two still-functional instruments sending back measurements of the interstellar medium beyond our solar system [4]. While in safe mode, Voyager 1 cannot collect or transmit this data back to Earth. Restoring normal operations is a top priority for NASA engineers [5].

Voyager 1 Spacecraft Facts
Launched: September 5, 1977
Current Location: Interstellar space, over 14 billion miles from Earth
Time in Space: Over 45 years
Instruments Still Working: Plasma Wave System, Cosmic Ray System

Voyager’s Hardware Showing Its Age

The ongoing communication issue highlights Voyager 1’s advanced age and how remarkable the spacecraft’s longevity has been [6]. Launched over 45 years ago with technology far more primitive than what is used in missions today, both Voyager 1 and 2 have continued operating well past expectations in the harsh environment of space [7].

But no machine lasts forever, and the extreme distances and faint signals from the Voyagers leave little room for any degradations or glitches. Essential computer memory components on Voyager 1 have been failing over the past several years [8]. Engineers have managed workarounds, but the probe lacks redundancies and backup systems common on modern spacecraft [9]. Any hardware failures or software bugs now could spell the end of humanity’s most distant spacecraft.

Root Cause Still Unknown

At a press conference on December 12th, Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd said engineers had not yet determined what specifically triggered the strange telemetry outputs from Voyager 1 [10]. Leading theories center around the craft’s flight data system, which oversees and coordinates various onboard computers and instruments.

One possibility is radiation damage accumulation over 45 years in space causing a flip in a key memory bit controlling the flight data computer [11]. Other failure scenarios NASA is investigating include the computer making an unauthorized jump in address registers or getting stuck in some form of infinite software loop [12]. Untangling root technical causes across billions of miles will be challenging.

Hope Voyager 1 Can Be Fixed From Earth

Due to the vast distances, any manual recovery options requiring uploads or reboots by onboard software are impossible on Voyager 1. The round-trip light time for signals to reach Voyager 1 exceeds a day [13]. With the probe not executing valid command sequences right now, NASA has no ability to remotely login or manually reboot systems should that be required to restore normal operations.

Instead, recovery efforts rely on getting the flight data system to trigger itself out of the strange transmission mode and into a functional state where new commands can once again be accepted [14]. Engineers are preparing specialized software recovery procedures they will beam to Voyager in hopes the communications issue clears and the spacecraft can follow stored instructions to self-heal [15]. But if hardware damage triggered the ongoing problems, remote recovery may prove impossible.

Interstellar Mission Still at Risk

Voyager 1’s current troubles threaten an unprecedented interstellar mission that has been ongoing for over a decade in the space between stars.

In August 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to cross the heliopause boundary and pass into the interstellar medium – the region of space between solar systems filled with material ejected from supernovae [16]. This boundary crossing marked a major milestone for humanity’s reach into deep space.

Since 2012, Voyager 1 has been exploring truly uncharted territory well beyond all other spacecraft, satellites, probes or telescopes – sending back data offering clues to the nature of the cosmos that surrounds our solar system [17].

But with the probe now stuck in safe mode and transmitting garbled messages, humanity risks losing our single functioning ambassador to interstellar space unless NASA engineers can quickly diagnose and resolve the ongoing software or hardware issues. Until communication is restored, one of the most historic deep space missions is on hold.

Next Few Weeks Crucial

At a press conference on Wednesday, NASA said it could take several weeks to finish diagnosing problems plaguing Voyager 1 before they will know the probe’s prognosis and mission outlook [18]. Priority one is exiting safe mode and regaining control over onboard systems – but and even that is still a major question mark.

If root causes prove to be radiation induced bit flips in memory or computer components, Voyager 1 may continue degrading [19]. But if hardware checks out, then software-based recovery procedures beamed to Voyager could potentially resolve the issues and open the door to resuming interstellar data gathering.

Over its 45 years in space, Voyager 1 has overcome all odds and myriad earlier technical glitches [20]. NASA remains hopeful this latest incident will prove similar and the agency’s most famous spacecraft will phone home again soon with signals coming in loud and clear. But the coming days remain critical.

Sources

[1] https://www.cnn.com/2023/12/13/world/voyager-1-computer-issue-scn/index.html
[2] https://www.ndtv.com/science/nasas-voyager-1-is-glitching-sending-nonsensical-messages-back-to-earth-4694514
[3] https://www.space.com/voyager-1-flight-data-system-glitch
[4] https://www.popsci.com/science/voyager-computer-issue/
[5] https://www.universetoday.com/164791/voyager-1-has-another-problem-with-its-computer-system/
[6] https://www.digitaltrends.com/space/voyager-1-communications-issue/
[7] https://www.foxweather.com/earth-space/nasa-voyager-1-spacecraft-technical-issue
[8] https://www.forbes.com/sites/amandakooser/2023/12/12/nasas-aging-voyager-1-experiences-glitch-in-interstellar-space/amp/
[9] https://www.extremetech.com/science/voyager-1-communication-scrambled-nasa-investigating
[10] https://www.cnn.com/2023/12/13/world/voyager-1-computer-issue-scn/index.html
[11] https://www.universetoday.com/164791/voyager-1-has-another-problem-with-its-computer-system/
[12] https://www.theregister.com/AMP/2023/12/14/engineers_work_to_fix_voyager/
[13] https://www.space.com/voyager-1-flight-data-system-glitch
[14] https://www.popsci.com/science/voyager-computer-issue/
[15] https://www.foxweather.com/earth-space/nasa-voyager-1-spacecraft-technical-issue
[16] https://www.space.com/17262-voyager-1-interstellar-space-discovery-details.html
[17] https://www.digitaltrends.com/space/voyager-1-communications-issue/
[18] https://www.cnn.com/2023/12/13/world/voyager-1-computer-issue-scn/index.html
[19] https://www.universetoday.com/164791/voyager-1-has-another-problem-with-its-computer-system/
[20] https://www.foxweather.com/earth-space/nasa-voyager-1-spacecraft-technical-issue

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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