The engineering team that operates the Voyager 1 spacecraft – NASA’s robotic planetary explorer currently zooming through interstellar space – is trying to figure out why the spacecraft is returning data readings that don’t match what actually does the vehicle. It’s a mystery that doesn’t seem to put the Voyager 1 spacecraft in immediate danger, but NASA is trying to figure it out nonetheless.
Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 has been exploring the cosmos for almost half a century. It has a twin, Voyager 2, which was launched 16 days earlier in the same year. Both spacecraft toured the outer solar system, flying over planets and photographing moons before finally traveling outside the confines of our cosmic neighborhood. In 2012, Voyager 1 passed the heliopause – the boundary where the Sun’s solar wind ends and the interstellar medium begins. At a distance of 14.5 billion kilometers from Earth, Voyager 1 is the most distant man-made object in space.
But the further Voyager 1 gets from Earth, the greater the likelihood of weird things happening with the spacecraft. Right now, the spacecraft’s articulation and attitude control system, or AACS, is working. It is the system that is responsible for maintaining the vehicle’s orientation in space as well as pointing the probe’s high-gain antenna, which is used to send and receive signals from Earth. The AACS still works as it should according to the engineers. But it returns data that doesn’t accurately describe what the system is doing, according to NASA. “For example, the data may appear to be randomly generated or may not reflect any possible state the AACS might be in,” NASA wrote in a press release.
Travel 1 again seems correct in all other respects. He’s in communication with the engineering team and he’s collecting science data as he should, NASA says. And the AACS problem did not prompt the spacecraft to enter safe mode, a type of operating procedure in which the spacecraft shuts down most of its instruments and concentrates only on its most essential functions to stay alive. .
So basically the team is moving forward while trying to figure out what’s going on waiting. “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. We are also in interstellar space – a high-radiation environment in which no spacecraft can ‘ve flown before.
A patch may take the form of a software patch. Or the Voyager 1 team can just learn to manage with that. Adapting is a way of life for Voyager teams. The power of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 decreases over time as the nuclear batteries that keep the spacecraft running slowly decay. Teams have already had to shut down various systems on the spacecraft – but somehow the science instruments are still working, even after all this time.