The Voyager 1 spacecraft returns awesome data from interstellar space that leaves NASA engineers scratching their heads.
Readings on the orientation of the 1970s space probe now appear to be randomly generated or do not reflect any possible scenario the spacecraft might find itself in, officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said this week.
The problematic data comes from the so-called “Articulation and Attitude Control System”, or AACS, the on-board equipment that measures, reports and modifies the vehicle’s position in space. The system keeps an antenna pointed at Earth, which allows it to send data home.
Distant Voyager 1 thrusters come to life after nearly 40 years out of use
The bizarre new situation calls into question the future of the long-running mission. As Voyager 1 continues to send back data from its science instruments, all signs suggest the controls are still working, although the data doesn’t make sense, the US space agency said. Otherwise it seems to be working normally.
“A mystery like this is somewhat normal at this point in the Voyager mission,” Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager 1 and 2, said in a NASA statement released Wednesday.
“A mystery like this is kind of par for the course at this point in the Voyager mission.”
Voyager 1 and 2 are almost 45 years old, which is well beyond their original life expectancy. Interstellar space is a high-radiation environment that no spacecraft has ever flown in before, she said, so surprises are almost expected to arise.
Voyager 1 is 14.5 billion kilometers from Earth. This means that the light takes 20 hours and 33 minutes to travel this distance. In other words, the delay between sending a message to Voyager and receiving a response is approximately two days.
“There are big challenges for the engineering team,” Dodd said. “But I think if there is a way to solve this problem with the [telemetry]our team will find him.”
Voyager 1 has been exploring the solar system since 1977, together with its counterpart Voyager 2.
Voyager 1 has been exploring the solar system since 1977, together with its counterpart Voyager 2. They were originally intended to study Jupiter and Saturn, their moons and Saturn’s rings. For the two-planet mission, they were built to last only five years.
Building on their initial success, the engineers doubled the mission objectives to include two more giant planets, Uranus and Neptune. In between, the spacecraft explored four planets, 48 moons, and a multitude of planetary magnetic fields and rings.
The spacecraft generates about 4 watts less power per year, which limits the number of systems it can operate. The mission team turned off the equipment to reserve power. No scientific instrument has yet been turned off. The goal is to operate the Voyagers beyond 2025, according to NASA.