NASA Voyager 1 returns to science after malfunctioning in interstellar space

Not bad for a 46 year old spacecraft. NASA’s Voyager 1 is operational again after a serious malfunction in November halted scientific work for months. The probe is humanity’s most distant emissary as it explores interstellar space, the space between the stars. NASA’s ability to repair the older spacecraft over long distances shows perseverance and ingenuity.

Two of Voyager 1’s instruments are working again and returning useful scientific data. “The mission’s science instrument teams are now determining steps to recalibrate the remaining two instruments, which will likely occur in the coming weeks,” NASA said in a statement on May 22. “This achievement marks significant progress toward restoring normal spacecraft operations. ”

Voyager 1 is in uncharted territory, both in terms of location and age. The probe is more than 15 billion miles from home. It takes more than 22.5 hours for a message from Earth to reach the probe and another 22.5 hours for a response. This means that problem solving happens in slow motion. Voyager 1 and its twin Voyager 2 were launched in 1977, so the team is working with decades-old systems, technology and documentation. Voyager 1 became the first man-made object to leave the solar system in 2012 when it entered interstellar space. Voyager 2 took the same cosmic step in 2018.

Voyager 1’s plasma wave subsystem and magnetometer instrument transmit useful data. The team is still working on repairing the cosmic ray subsystem and the low-energy charged particle instrument. This process can take weeks. “Kind of like when the power goes out and you have to go through the house to reset all your electronics,” the Voyager 1 team tweeted on X. “That’s basically what my team and I are doing right now.”

Returning Voyager 1 to scientific operations has been a step-by-step process. The probe started returning garbled data in late November and it took time to track down the cause of the failure. “The team ultimately determined that the problem stemmed from a small portion of corrupted memory in the flight data subsystem, one of the spacecraft’s three computers,” NASA said. “This system is designed, among other things, to package data from the scientific instruments, as well as technical data about the health and status of the spacecraft, before that information is sent to Earth.”

Once the source was found, the team started reworking Voyager 1’s code. By the end of April, the research was making sense again. Returning two instruments to scientific work marks an important milestone in the recovery operation. Every day that Voyager 1 continues to function is a small miracle. NASA’s heroic efforts to solve problems will help scientists better understand interstellar space.

The spacecraft won’t last forever, but NASA hopes to have at least one instrument working on both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 until about 2025. Even if the scientific instruments are retired, the probes may remain in contact with Earth for many years to come. And there is always the hope that Voyager’s Golden Record – a gramophone record full of messages from Earth – might one day be found by intelligent life from beyond our solar system. In the meantime, Voyager 1 is back at work while it lasts.

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