NASA engineers puzzled by mysterious signals from Voyager 1

NASA engineers puzzled by mysterious signals from Voyager 1

  • NASA said Voyager 1 was sending data that doesn’t match the spacecraft’s movements.
  • The veteran spacecraft has been exploring our solar system and interstellar space since 1977.
  • It is now 14.5 billion kilometers from Earth, making it the most distant man-made object.

NASA’s Voyager 1 continues its journey beyond our solar system, 45 years after its launch. But now the veteran spacecraft is returning strange data, confusing its engineers.

NASA said Wednesday that while the probe is still functioning properly, readings from its Attitude and Articulation Control System – AACS for short – do not appear to match the spacecraft’s movements and orientation, suggesting that the craft is confused as to its location in space. AACS is essential for Voyager to send data to NASA about its surrounding interstellar environment because it keeps the craft’s antenna pointing directly at our planet.

“A mystery like this is somewhat normal at this point in the Voyager mission,” Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager 1 and 2 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “The spacecraft are both nearly 45 years old, which is far beyond what mission planners had anticipated.” NASA said Voyager 1’s twin, the Voyager 2 probe, was behaving normally.

Launched in 1977 to explore the outer planets of our solar system, Voyager 1 has remained operational well beyond expectations and continues to send information about its journeys to Earth. The pioneering craft left our solar system and entered interstellar space in 2012. It is now 14.5 billion kilometers from Earth, making it the most distant man-made object .

This file photo shows an engineer working on the construction of a large dish-shaped high-gain Voyager antenna.  The photo was taken on July 9, 1976.

An engineer works on a parabola-shaped Voyager high-gain antenna on July 9, 1976.

NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA said that from what its engineers can tell, Voyager 1’s AACS sends out randomly generated data that does “not reflect what is actually happening on board.” But even though data from the system suggests otherwise, the spacecraft’s antenna appears to be aligned correctly – it receives and executes commands from NASA and sends data back to Earth. He said so far the system glitch has not triggered the aging spacecraft to enter “safe mode”, during which it performs only essential operations.

“Until the nature of the problem is better understood, the team cannot predict whether this could affect how long the spacecraft can collect and transmit science data,” NASA said.

Dodd and his team hope to figure out what’s causing Earth’s robot emissary to send unwanted data. “There are big challenges for the engineering team,” Dodd said. One major problem: it takes 20 hours and 33 minutes for the light to travel to Voyager’s current interstellar location, so a round-trip message between the space agency and Voyager takes two days.

“But I think if there’s a way to fix this with AACS, our team will find it,” Dodd added.

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