Voyager 1 Flight Data System Glitches

Image: NASA

Voyager 1 is glitching out.

On Tuesday, NASA announced that the trailblazing deep-space probe was sending a repeated, meaningless sequence of ones and zeros back home, indicating that the flight data system (FDS), or onboard computer, was stuck. (They’re pretty sure it’s not aliens.) 

Voyager 1 has three onboard computers. The FDS is responsible for aggregating data from the science instruments, as well as data about the probe’s health. It then sends that data on to the  telemetry modulation unit (TMU), which beams it back to Earth. 

  • NASA has run some tests that indicate the source of the breakdown is the FDS failing to communicate properly with the TMU.
  • The probe is still receiving and carrying out commands from Earth, which is a good sign.

Voyager’s journey: Voyager 1 launched on Sept. 5, 1977, about two weeks after its twin craft, Voyager 2. Since then, it’s been traveling through the solar system and, as of 2012, interstellar space, sending back unprecedented views of the more distant planets and celestial bodies, including Jupter, Saturn, and Saturn’s moon Titan.

The beloved probe has remained operational deep into uncharted territory in interstellar space, but it hasn’t been without some issues. The computers have glitched before, and on top of that, the thruster systems and fuel lines have had some issues and aren’t expected to last forever.

Troubleshooting: First, to fix the computer system issue, NASA tried the good ol’ tried-and-true turn-it-off-and-on-again method, but had no luck.

Now it’s on to plan B. The agency is formulating a plan to ship an update to Voyager 1 that might fix the issue without causing any more problems that could result in a permanent loss of contact with Voyager 1, but there are a few challenges.

  • Because of the probe’s distance from Earth, it takes more than 22 hours for a command to travel from Earth, and another 22 hours to know whether or not it worked.
  • The probe’s documentation is also super old-school, contained in old documents from the 70s, and doesn’t necessarily contain any guidance for fixing this kind of issue.

Preparing for the worst: The Voyager probes have been traveling through space for nearly half a century now (quite an achievement, considering their nominal mission was only four years long), but they won’t last forever. NASA is committed to shipping whatever fixes it can to keep them trucking on through interstellar space for as long as possible…but the scientific community is going to have to prepare to say goodbye.

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