Finally, engineers have a clue that could help them save Voyager 1

Artist's illustration of the Voyager 1 spacecraft.
Enlarge / Artist’s illustration of the Voyager 1 spacecraft.


It’s been four months since NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft sent an intelligible signal back to Earth, and the problem has puzzled engineers tasked with supervising the probe exploring interstellar space.

But there’s a renewed optimism among the Voyager ground team based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. On March 1, engineers sent a command up to Voyager 1—more than 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) away from Earth—to “gently prompt” one of the spacecraft’s computers to try different sequences in its software package. This was the latest step in NASA’s long-distance troubleshooting to try to isolate the cause of the problem preventing Voyager 1 from transmitting coherent telemetry data.

Cracking the case

Officials suspect a piece of corrupted memory inside the Flight Data Subsystem (FDS), one of three main computers on the spacecraft, is the most likely culprit for the interruption in normal communication. Because Voyager 1 is so far away, it takes about 45 hours for engineers on the ground to know how the spacecraft reacted to their commands—the one-way light travel time is about 22.5 hours.

The FDS collects science and engineering data from the spacecraft’s sensors, then combines the information into a single data package, which goes through a separate component called the Telemetry Modulation Unit to beam it back to Earth through Voyager’s high-gain antenna.

Engineers are almost entirely certain the problem is in the FDS computer. The communications systems onboard Voyager 1 appear to be functioning normally, and the spacecraft is sending a steady radio tone back to Earth, but there’s no usable data contained in the signal. This means engineers know Voyager 1 is alive, but they have no insight into what part of the FDS memory is causing the problem.

But Voyager 1 responded to the March 1 troubleshooting command with something different from what engineers have seen since this issue first appeared on November 14.

“The new signal was still not in the format used by Voyager 1 when the FDS is working properly, so the team wasn’t initially sure what to make of it,” NASA said in an update Wednesday. “But an engineer with the agency’s Deep Space Network, which operates the radio antennas that communicate with both Voyagers and other spacecraft traveling to the Moon and beyond, was able to decode the new signal and found that it contains a readout of the entire FDS memory.”

Now, engineers are meticulously comparing each bit of code from the FDS memory readout to the memory readout Voyager 1 sent back to Earth before the issue arose in November. This, they hope, will allow them to find the root of the problem. But it will probably take weeks or months for the Voyager team to take the next step. They don’t want to cause more harm.

“Using that information to devise a potential solution and attempt to put it into action will take time,” NASA said.

This is perhaps the most serious ailment the spacecraft has encountered since its launch in 1977. Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter and Saturn before getting a kick from Saturn’s gravity to speed into the outer solar system. In 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space when it crossed the heliopause, where the solar wind, the stream of particles emanating from the Sun, push against a so-called galactic wind, the particles that populate the void between the stars.

Engineers have kept Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, alive for more than 46 years, overcoming technical problems that have doomed other space missions. Both probes face waning power from their nuclear batteries, and there are concerns about their thrusters aging and fuel lines becoming clogged, among other things. But each time there is a problem, ground teams have come up with a trick to keep the Voyagers going, often referencing binders of fraying blueprints and engineering documents from the spacecraft’s design and construction nearly 50 years ago.

Suzanne Dodd, NASA’s project manager for Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, recently told Ars that engineers would need to pull off their “biggest miracle” to restore Voyager 1 to normal operations. Now, Voyager’s 1 voice from the sky has provided engineers with a clue that could help them realize this miracle.

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