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NASA Engineers Have Figured Out Why Voyager 1 Was Sending Garbled Data

The space probe left Earth in 1977, and it's still running—with some hiccups.

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An illustration of Voyager 1 in space.
The Voyager 1 spacecraft, in an artist’s illustration.
Illustration: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Earlier this year, the Voyager 1 spacecraft—over 14 billion miles from Earth—started sending NASA some wacky data. Now, engineers with the space agency have identified and solved the issue, and no, it wasn’t aliens.

The strange data was coming from Voyager 1’s attitude articulation and control system, which is responsible for maintaining the spacecraft’s orientation as it hurtles through interstellar space at about 38,000 miles per hour.

The garbled telemetry data meant that Voyager 1 was communicating information about its location and orientation that didn’t match up with the possible true location and orientation of the spacecraft. Otherwise, the probe was behaving normally, as was its partner-in-crime, Voyager 2. Both spacecraft launched in the summer of 1977, and Voyager 1 is the farthest human-made object in the universe.

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“The spacecraft are both almost 45 years old, which is far beyond what the mission planners anticipated. We’re also in interstellar space – a high-radiation environment that no spacecraft have flown in before,” said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager’s project manager, when the issue first emerged.

“A mystery like this is sort of par for the course at this stage of the Voyager mission,” Dodd added.

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Now, NASA engineers have realized why the attitude articulation and control system was sending out gibberish data. The system began sending the telemetry through a faulty computer aboard Voyager 1, and the computer corrupted the information before it could be read out on Earth.

The Voyager 1 team simply had the spacecraft start sending data to the right computer, correcting the problem. They’re not sure why the system began sending the telemetry into the faulty computer to begin with.

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“We’re happy to have the telemetry back,” Dodd said in a NASA JPL release. “We’ll do a full memory readout of the AACS and look at everything it’s been doing. That will help us try to diagnose the problem that caused the telemetry issue in the first place.”

The good news is that the faulty computer doesn’t seem to be going HAL 9000 on Voyager 1; the space probe is otherwise in good health. On September 5, the mission will celebrate its 45th year, a milestone achieved by Voyager 2 on August 20.

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Since the telemetry issue was first made public, Voyager 1 has traveled another 100,000,000 miles. It’s a small, technical fix for humans, but one that ensures we can keep track of the intrepid space probe as it continues its extraordinary journey into deep space.

More: Voyager 2 Team Releases First Scientific Data on Interstellar Space