NASA Is Still Fighting to Save Its Historic Voyager 1 Spacecraft

NASA Is Still Fighting to Save Its Historic Voyager 1 Spacecraft

For more than 45 years, the Voyager 1 spacecraft has been cruising through the cosmos, crossing the boundary of our solar system to become the first human-made object to venture to interstellar space. Iconic in every regard, Voyager 1 has delivered groundbreaking data on Jupiter and Saturn, and captured the loneliest image of Earth. But perhaps nothing is lonelier than an aging spacecraft that has lost its ability to communicate while traveling billions of miles away from home.

NASA’s Voyager 1 has been glitching for months, sending nonsensical data to ground control. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have been trying to resolve the issue, but given how far the spacecraft currently is, the process has been extremely slow. Things are looking pretty bleak for the aging mission, which might be nearing the end. Still, NASA isn’t ready to let go of its most distant spacecraft just yet.

“The team continues information gathering and are preparing some steps that they’re hopeful will get them on a path to either understand the root of the problem and/or solve it,” a JPL spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email.

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

FDS and TMU, however, may be having trouble communicating with one another. As a result, TMU has been sending data to mission control in a repeating pattern of ones and zeroes.

The problem first began in May 2022, when the probe suddenly started sending nonsensical attitude articulation and control (AACS) data. Engineers resolved the issue by sending the telemetry data through one of the spacecraft’s other computers. In December 2023, Voyager 1 started speaking gibberish again.

Voyager 1 is currently 15.14 billion miles away (24.4 billion kilometers), flying through interstellar space at a speed of 38,000 miles per hour (61,155 kilometers per hour). Because of the long distance to Voyager 1, it takes around two days for JPL engineers to send a signal to the spacecraft and receive a response back (22 hours each way).

“After they do that, they spend a few days digesting the information they got, consulting old documents to see if they can make sense of the little bits of information they can glean from things (since the telemetry data itself is unusable), and then send another command (that either tries to change something on the spacecraft or will provide more information),” according to the JPL spokesperson. “That takes about a week, which is why it’s been such a slow process.”

Voyager 1 launched in 1977, less than a month after its twin probe Voyager 2 began its own journey to space. But because it took a faster route, Voyager 1 exited the asteroid belt earlier than its twin, making close encounters with Jupiter and Saturn, where it discovered two Jovian moons, Thebe and Metis, and five new moons, and a new ring called the G-ring, around Saturn. Voyager 1 ventured into interstellar space in August 2012, becoming the first spacecraft to cross the boundary of our solar system.

As they travel farther away from home, each of the Voyager probes carries a message from Earth. Even if this is the last we’ve heard from Voyager 1, the probe has lived out quite the mission, and will be remembered forever.

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