NASA’s Voyager 1, the most distant human-made object in space, is facing a critical situation following a computer glitch that has compromised its ability to transmit essential telemetry data back to Earth.
The nearly 50-year-old space probe, which is currently over 15 billion miles away, encountered the malfunction on November 14, 2023. This has hindered its capacity to relay vital measurements from its scientific instruments and fundamental engineering information. As a result, the mission’s support team in Southern California has been left in the dark about key parameters related to the craft’s propulsion, power, and control systems.
“It would be the biggest miracle if we get it back. We certainly haven’t given up,” Voyager’s Project Manager Suzanne Dodd told Ars Technica in an interview. “There are other things we can try. But this is, by far, the most serious since I’ve been project manager.”
Engineers believe that the problem originated in the Flight Data System (FDS), specifically related to “frame syncing” data, and suspect that it may be due to corrupted memory within the FDS. This has hindered the team’s ability to pinpoint the exact location of the FDS memory corruption, as the lack of detailed telemetry data from Voyager 1 has made it challenging to identify the root cause of the issue.
The complexity of diagnosing and rectifying a problem occurring at such an immense distance, compounded by the age of the spacecraft and its fifty-year-old technology, has underscored the unprecedented technical and logistical challenge facing the mission’s support team.
The FDS, a groundbreaking innovation in computing at the time of Voyager 1’s development, was the first computer on a spacecraft to make use of volatile memory. Despite the dedicated efforts of the engineering team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the absence of comprehensive telemetry data has posed a significant obstacle in their ongoing endeavors to restore full functionality to the probe.
The unique and historic significance of the Voyager 1 mission, coupled with the remarkable achievements and contributions of the spacecraft, has further emphasized the critical nature of the current predicament and the pressing need for a solution to ensure the continuation of its journey through the cosmos. As the situation continues to unfold, NASA remains hopeful that a resolution will be found, allowing Voyager 1 to continue its journey.
NASA’s engineers have reported that Voyager’s only communication with Earth is a carrier tone that is letting them know it’s still awake and out there. No other major issues are being reported, and there is a clear indication that the spacecraft is receiving commands and messages from Earth.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t cracked the nut yet, or solved the problem, or gotten any telemetry back,” Dodd concluded.