Spending 45 years traversing the solar system really does a number on a spacecraft.
from NASA Traveler 1 launched in 1977, passed into what scientists call interstellar space in 2012 and kept going – the spacecraft is now 14.5 billion miles (23.3 billion kilometers) from Earth. And while Voyager 1 is still functioning properly, mission scientists recently noticed that it seemed confused about its location in space without going into safe mode or otherwise sounding an alarm.
“A mystery like this is kind of normal at this point in the Voyager mission,” said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, in a statement. statement.
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“The spacecraft are both nearly 45 years old, which is well beyond what mission planners had anticipated,” Dodd added. “We are also in interstellar space – a high-radiation environment in which no spacecraft has flown before.”
The problem has to do with Voyager 1’s Attitude Articulation and Control System, or AACS, which keeps the spacecraft and its antenna in the correct orientation. And the AACS seems to work very well, since the spacecraft receives commands, acts on them and sends scientific data back to Earth with the same signal strength as usual. Nevertheless, AACS sends unwanted telemetry data to spacecraft managers.
NASA’s statement does not specify when the problem started or how long it lasted.
The agency says Voyager staff will continue to investigate the issue and attempt to resolve or adjust to it. It’s a slow process, as a signal from Earth currently takes 20 hours and 33 minutes to reach Voyager 1; receiving the response from the spacecraft results in the same delay.
The Voyager 2 twin probe, also launched in 1977, is behaving normally, NASA said. The power the twin spacecraft can produce is still dwindling, and mission team members have turned off some components to save juice — measures they hope will keep the probes running until at least 2025.
“There are big challenges for the engineering team,” Dodd said. “But I think if there’s a way to solve this problem with AACS, our team will find it.”