Voyager 1’s 45-year-old deep space probe shows its age as NASA engineers try to determine why it is sending back invalid telemetry data from its ratio control system as it rushes through interstellar space to never return .
Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 is currently 14.5 billion miles (23.3 billion km) from Earth – a distance so long that a radio signal takes 20 hours and 33 minutes to reach it from the control of the mission. Despite nearly half a century of service during which the robotic spacecraft visited Jupiter in 1979, followed by Saturn and its giant moon Titan in 1980, Voyager 1 is still operational and sending data back from scientific instruments.
It handles this with its three plutonium-powered radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), which are expected to continue to power the probe until sometime after 2025. However, Voyager 1 and its brother Voyager 2 have been reconfigured over time. in time to overcome power drops and malfunctions, and make sure they continue to do useful work until the RTG fails.
In addition, Voyager 1 has been bombarded by space radiation for decades, and this is affecting its electronics, which is one of the reasons why NASA engineers are monitoring the ship’s systems so closely.
The current difficulty is with the system of articulation and control of attitude (AACS). Although Voyager 1 receives and executes commands from Earth and sends back data from its scientific instruments, AACS, which helps keep the high-gain antenna focused on the Earth, returns data that appears random or not. corresponds to any state in which AACS may be.
According to NASA, the fault was not serious enough to trigger the on-board fault protection systems and the signal did not lose power, indicating that the high-gain antenna was still pointing in the right direction. The team is working to find out the source of the problem and whether it includes other spacecraft systems. If the source cannot be found, the alternative may be to switch to a backup hardware system.
“Such a mystery is something like the course at this stage of the Voyager mission,” said Susanne Dodd, Voyager 1 and 2 project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Both spacecraft are almost 45 years old, which is far beyond what the mission is planning. We are also in interstellar space, a high-radiation environment in which no spacecraft has flown before. So there are some big challenges for engineering. But I think if there’s a way to solve this problem with AACS, our team will find it. “