NASA fixed a glitch on Voyager 1 after consulting 45-year-old manuals. The spacecraft was sending information through a dead computer.

Artist's concept of the Voyager 1 spacecraft in space.

Artist’s concept of the Voyager 1 spacecraft.NASA

  • In May, NASA reported that its Voyager 1 spacecraft was sending strange data to Earth.

  • After digging through decades-old manuals to debug it, the Voyager team fixed the glitch in August.

  • Why it happened is still uncertain. Engineers think it could be due to the age of the spacecraft or its location in interstellar space.

In May, NASA scientists said the Voyager 1 spacecraft was sending back inaccurate data from its attitude control system. To find a solution, engineers dug through decades-old manuals.

The Voyager team resolved the mysterious glitch in late August, NASA officials wrote in an update. Turns out the spacecraft was beaming information using a dead computer corrupting the data.

Voyager 1, along with its twin Voyager 2, launched in 1977 with a five-year design life to closely study Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and their respective moons.

After nearly 45 years in space, both spacecraft are still functioning. In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first-ever human-made object to venture beyond the limit of our sun’s influence, known as the heliopause, and into interstellar space. It is now about 14.8 billion miles from Earth, sending back data from outside the solar system.

“Nobody thought it would take this long,” Suzanne Dodd, project manager for the Voyager mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider the summer before the Voyager team found a solution, adding, “And here are we then.”

Digging up old spacecraft documents

Voyager 1 was designed and built in the early 1970s, which made solving the spacecraft’s problems difficult.

While current Voyager engineers have some documentation — or command media, the technical term for the paperwork detailing the spacecraft’s design and procedures — from those early mission days, other important documents may have been lost or misplaced.

An engineer works on November 18, 1976 vibrational acoustics and pyroshock tests for one of NASA's Voyager spacecraft.

An engineer works on an instrument for one of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft on November 18, 1976.NASA/JPL-Caltech

During the first 12 years of the Voyager mission, thousands of engineers worked on the project, Dodd said. “When they retired in the ’70s and ’80s, there wasn’t a lot of pressure to have a project document library. People took their boxes home to their garage,” Dodd added. In modern missions, NASA maintains more robust documentation.

There are some boxes of documents and schematics stored outside the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Dodd and the rest of Voyager’s escorts can request access to this data. Still, it can be a challenge. “To get that information, you have to find out who is working on the project in that area,” Dodd said.

Before Voyager 1’s recent telemetry failure, mission engineers had to specifically look for boxes under the name of engineers who helped design the attitude control system — which was “a time-consuming process,” Dodd said.

Source of the error

The spacecraft’s attitude control system, which sends telemetry data back to NASA, indicates Voyager 1’s orientation in space and keeps the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna pointed at Earth, allowing it to send data home.

“Telemetry data is basically a status about the health of the system,” Dodd said. But during this summer’s outage, the telemetry readouts the spacecraft’s handlers got from the system were garbled, Dodd said, meaning they didn’t know if the attitude control system was working properly.

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

On July 9, 1976, an engineer works on the construction of a large, saucer-shaped Voyager high-gain antenna.NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dodd and her team had long suspected it was due to an aging component. “Not everything works forever, not even in space,” she said over the summer.

Engineers also thought Voyager’s glitch might be affected by its location in interstellar space. According to Dodd, the spacecraft’s data suggests that high-energy charged particles are in interstellar space. “It’s unlikely that anyone would hit the spacecraft, but if it did, it could cause more damage to the electronics,” Dodd said, adding, “We can’t pinpoint that as the source of the anomaly, but it could be are a factor.”

In late August, Voyager engineers found the source of the garbled data: the spacecraft’s attitude control system was sending information through a dead computer. They believe it was triggered by an erroneous command from another on-board computer.

“We’re glad telemetry is back,” Dodd said in a NASA statement released in August. Still, the team isn’t sure why it happened in the first place. “We will do a full memory readout of the AACS and look at everything it did. That will help us diagnose the problem that caused the telemetry problem in the first place. So we are cautiously optimistic, but we still have more research to do. do,” Dodd said in the statement.

Voyager 1’s journey continues

As part of an ongoing power management effort that has increased in recent years, engineers have been shutting down non-technical systems aboard the Voyager probes, such as the science instrument heaters, hoping to keep them running until 2030. to keep.

Saturn as seen by Voyager 1 as it looked back on November 16, 1980, four days after the spacecraft flew past the planet.

Voyager 1 looked back at Saturn on November 16, 1980 to give this unique perspective of its rings.NASA/JPL

From discovering unknown moons and rings to the first direct evidence of the heliopause, the Voyager mission has helped scientists understand the cosmos. “We want the mission to last as long as possible because the science data is so valuable,” Dodd said.

“It’s really remarkable that both spacecraft are still working and working well — minor glitches, but working extremely well and still returning this valuable data,” Dodd said, adding, “They’re still talking to us.”

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