TechNASA grapples with communication breakdown from distant Voyager 1

NASA grapples with communication breakdown from distant Voyager 1

Voyager 1 leaving the Solar System - artistic vision.
Voyager 1 leaving the Solar System - artistic vision.
Images source: © NASA

6:46 AM EST, March 9, 2024

The unmanned Voyager 1 space probe, currently on the edge of our Solar System moving into interstellar space, has been experiencing communication issues with Earth for several months. Despite their efforts, NASA's engineers have yet to identify an effective solution to this problem.

Launched by the United States, Voyager 1 holds the record for being the human-made object that has traveled the farthest from Earth. It crossed the heliopause, the boundary that marks the end of the heliosphere and the start of interstellar space, some time ago. Presently, the probe is approximately 14.9 billion miles from our planet, a distance 163 times greater than the separation between the Earth and the Sun.

Communication issues with Voyager 1

Since its departure from Earth in 1977, Voyager 1 has transmitted a wealth of scientific data back to our planet for many years. Despite encountering operational difficulties, solutions were always sought. However, a novel problem emerged towards the end of 2023 with the data transmission from the probe. Instead of sending scientific data back in binary form (a series of zeros and ones), it began repeating the same sequence of zeros and ones, suggesting the system might have "frozen".

Further analysis revealed that the issue involves three onboard computers within the flight data system (FDS). While the probe still receives and executes commands sent from Earth correctly, it fails to communicate effectively with another subsystem, the telemetry modulation unit (TMU).

The FDS is tasked with several vital functions, including gathering data from scientific instruments and monitoring the probe's status. It compiles this information into packets and sends it back to Earth via the TMU system.

Efforts to address the problem, including directives to reset the computer, have so far failed to produce the desired outcomes. Several months after the malfunction was first noted, the issue remains unresolved. Consequently, no scientific data have been received from Voyager 1 since. The challenge of rectifying the probe's operations is amplified by the 22-hour delay for any commands sent from Earth to reach Voyager 1.

The probe relies on a radioisotope thermoelectric generator for power, which is fueled by plutonium. It's projected that within a few years, possibly by 2025, it may become necessary to deactivate all its scientific instruments. However, it is expected to stay within communication range of the Deep Space Network's antennas, which NASA uses for interacting with its space probes, until around 2036.

Should Voyager 1 continue its journey, it might reach the hypothetical Oort Cloud in a few hundred years. Although it is not directed towards any particular star, it is estimated that in 40,272 AD (or in 38,000 years), the probe will come within 1.7 light-years of the star AC+79 3888, located in the constellation of Ursa Minor.

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