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06-17-2024

Voyager 1 is 15 billion miles from Earth and still sending data

For the first time since November 2023, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has started transmitting useful data back to Earth about the status and functionality of its onboard systems. 

The mission team is now preparing for the spacecraft to resume sending back scientific data. Voyager 1, along with its sibling Voyager 2, are the only spacecraft to venture into interstellar space.

Unreadable data from Voyager 1

Voyager 1 had ceased transmitting intelligible science and engineering data on November 14, 2023. Although the spacecraft appeared to be receiving instructions and operating as expected, the data it sent back was unreadable. 

In March, the engineering team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California diagnosed the problem as being related to a malfunction in one of the spacecraft’s three onboard computers, specifically the flight data subsystem (FDS). 

This system is responsible for organizing the science and engineering data before it is sent to Earth.

Malfunction traced to a single chip

The resurgence of data transmission in April 2024 was met with celebrations by the Voyager team at JPL. The malfunction was traced back to a single memory chip within the FDS that had failed. 

This chip was crucial as it held part of the FDS’s memory, including segments of its software code, essential for processing the data sent to Earth. 

With the chip non-functional and irreplaceable, the team attempted to reassign the code to different parts of the FDS memory. However, no single section of the memory was sufficiently large to accommodate the entire code.

How the Voyager 1 issue was resolved

The solution involved fragmenting the code into smaller segments and reallocating these across several memory locations. 

This intricate process required adjustments to ensure the fragmented code could operate seamlessly as a whole. This also involved updating references to the code’s location in the FDS memory.

The focus initially was on the segment of the code responsible for collating the spacecraft’s engineering data. This was successfully relocated within the FDS memory on April 18. 

Billions of miles from Earth

Given Voyager 1’s immense distance – over 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) from Earth – it takes about 22 ½ hours for a signal to travel from Earth to the spacecraft and another 22 ½ hours for the response to return. 

When communications were reestablished on April 20, the team confirmed that the adjustments were successful, marking the first time in five months that they could verify the spacecraft’s operational health and status.

Resuming transmission from Voyager 1

In the upcoming weeks, the Voyager team plans to reposition and modify the remaining sections of the FDS software, which are crucial for resuming the transmission of scientific data.

Meanwhile, Voyager 2 remains fully functional. Launched more than 46 years ago, the Voyager spacecraft – both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 – are the most enduring and farthest-traveling spacecraft ever launched. 

Prior to entering interstellar space, each spacecraft conducted flybys of Jupiter and Saturn, with Voyager 2 also visiting Uranus and Neptune.

The Voyager mission

The Voyager mission, launched by NASA in 1977, comprises two spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, designed to explore the outer planets of our solar system and beyond. 

Initially intended to study Jupiter and Saturn, the mission’s success led to extended objectives, including flybys of Uranus and Neptune by Voyager 2. Both spacecraft provided unprecedented data and images of these distant planets and their moons, rings, and magnetic fields.

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have since journeyed into interstellar space, transmitting data back to Earth about the heliosphere’s outer edges and the interstellar medium. 

Extraterrestrial messages in the Golden Records 

The Voyager mission includes extraterrestrial messages that are encapsulated in Golden Records, which are phonograph records attached to both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft. 

Content 

These records were designed to communicate the story of our world to any extraterrestrial beings who might find them. The content of the Golden Records was curated to present a snapshot of life on Earth, reflecting the planet’s diversity, culture, and technological achievements.

Images and sounds 

Each Golden Record contains 115 images depicting a variety of subjects, including humans, animals, plants, architecture, and landscapes, as well as scientific and technical diagrams. 

Additionally, the records include a selection of natural sounds, such as thunder, birdsong, and the calls of whales. 

Music

To convey the essence of human culture, the records feature a rich assortment of music from different cultures and eras, spanning classical, jazz, folk, and traditional pieces from around the world.

Greetings

The records include spoken greetings in 55 different languages – from ancient Sumerian to modern languages like English and Mandarin – as well as a greeting from Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations. 

There are also printed messages from U.S. President Jimmy Carter and NASA Administrator James Fletcher.

A lasting message

Instructions on how to play the records, including the stylus needed to play them, are also included. 

The records were created under the guidance of a committee led by Carl Sagan, who aimed to create a comprehensive and lasting message about Earth and its inhabitants, offering a friendly greeting to any potential finders in the vastness of space.

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