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NASA launched Voyager 1 and 2 in 1977 on a mission to study the outer solar system. The mission lasted much longer than anyone expected, but 45 years is a long time for hardware exposed to the harsh environment of deep space. It is therefore not a big surprise that NASA reports that Voyager 1 has started sending back encrypted telemetry data. Engineers are investigating, but all scientific operations are still ongoing, at least for now.

Voyager 1 was actually launched a few months after Voyager 2, which uses rare alignment of the outer planets to perform the “Great Circle”, visiting Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 1 passed only Jupiter, Saturn and Saturn’s moon Titan. This allowed Voyager 1 to overtake Voyager 2 and become the first man-made object to leave the solar system in 2012. It is still there in interstellar space, sending scientific data. However, the vessel’s articulation and control system (AACS) has become operational.

This system is responsible for ensuring that the high-gain antenna remains locked to Earth, so it is vital for Voyager 1 to continue to operate. NASA says AACS has begun returning invalid data that could be completely arbitrary. as it reports impossible states for AACS. It is strange that the scientific tools of the probe are still online and the data transmitted back through the weak signal seems to be valid.

Voyager 1 is equipped with a fault-tolerant mode that turns on to maintain basic functionality in the event of a system failure, but this is not triggered. The spacecraft’s communication signal is as strong as ever. The team is currently investigating whether the error is in the AACS itself or another system involved in the production and transmission of telemetry data to the AACS. Until they make that decision, it is impossible to know how this will affect Voyager 1.

There are many things we do not know about space outside the solar system. Voyager 1 was the first to offer direct observations of interstellar space just a few years ago. It is possible that this high-radiation environment creates unique challenges that could affect Voyager’s systems, and there may be no solution. As the spacecraft continues to transmit data, the team can simply adapt to the new reality. However, the loss of AACS data can make it much more difficult to troubleshoot future issues. If Voyager 1 manages to get through this, it should continue to operate for several more years until its radioisotope thermoelectric generators no longer produce enough power, which is expected to happen around 2025.

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