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Communication With Voyager One Finally Restored

Voyager 1 was launched about 47 years ago on September 5, 1977, and since then it has been making its way from Earth to the outer edge of the solar system. It was sent out to collect data and study the outer planets in the solar system, as well as interstellar space, or the space between stars. This journey hasn't always been smooth sailing though, in 2017 NASA noticed the small orientation trusters were slowly degrading and losing the power they once had. After assembling a team to study the problem an interesting solution was proposed, start using a set of thrusters that hadn't been operated in 37 years. Luckily, after a small test of these old thrusters, it was confirmed that they would work. Sadly not all problems with Voyager 1 have been able to be solved so easily. Randomly in November of 2023 the binary code that Voyager 1 sends to communicate with Earth stopped making sense. NASA was still able to send messages perfectly fine but all of Voyager 1’s responses were completely unreadable. Luckily NASA was able to confirm that Voyager 1 was alive as it was still sending out what's known as a carrier tone. This tone is sent on a wavelength that doesn’t carry information but is more used like a heartbeat to show that it's still alive. When this problem began it was strongly suspected, and later confirmed, that the problem had to do with Voyager 1’s Flight data system (FDS), which is one of the computers on the spacecraft. There is a backup FDS but it stopped working in 1981 just four years after its launch. Normally the FDS is the computer that keeps track of all of the system, but this time it is the one with the problem so the scientists at NASA are unable to understand what is wrong. About a month after Voyager 1 stopped working NASA finally announced that a problem with the FDS was the cause of the jumbled messages. Many simple fixes were attempted with no success. The team eventually was led to believe that the FDS’s memory had been corrupted, however, it was also recognized that it could also be a physical hardware malfunction. By early April only a little progress had been made, with the team narrowing the problem down to a single chip that contained the corrupted code. The team figured this out when a “poke” was sent to Voyager, the “poke” prompts the FDS to send a full memory readout back to Earth. The message confirmed that about 3% of the memory was corrupted, preventing it from operating normally. The team isn’t exactly sure what caused the memory to corrupt but one theory is that the chip was hit by a high-speed energetic particle fly through space. Now that the true problem had been discovered the team was finally able to work on a solution. The main idea was to move all of the code in the corrupted chip to a new location but this was a lot more work than expected. First, all of the code had to be changed so that it didn't reverence the corrupted chip. Then the team moved the part of the code responsible for packaging the engineering data to an uncorrupted chip. Finally, for the first time since November, the team at NASA was able to get a small amount of readable data to be sent from Voyager 1, they were able to read the health and status of the spacecraft. The problem hasn't fully gone away as a lot of code still needs to be moved but this is a good start. The team says that they will continue to slowly move the data over the next few weeks. With this problem solved, the farthest man-made object is set to continue rocketing away from the Earth returning loads of important scientific data.

 

Hartono, N. (2024, April 4). Engineers pinpoint cause of Voyager 1 issue, are working on solution. NASA. https://blogs.nasa.gov/voyager/2024/04/04/engineers-pinpoint-cause-of-voyager-1-issue-are-working-on-solution/ 

Lea, R. (2024, April 10). We finally know why NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft stopped communicating - scientists are working on a fix. Space.com. https://www.space.com/nasa-voyager-1-communications-breakdown-solved 

NASA. (2017, December 1). Voyager - Voyager 1 fires up thrusters after 37 years. NASA. https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/news/details.php?article_id=108 

NASA. (2024, April 22). NASA’s Voyager 1 resumes sending engineering updates to Earth. NASA. https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/nasas-voyager-1-resumes-sending-engineering-updates-to-earth 

Ravisetti, M. (2024, February 17). NASA’s Voyager 1 glitch has scientists sad yet hopeful: “voyager 2 is still going strong.” Space.com. https://www.space.com/nasa-voyager1-spacecraft-interstellar-engineers-mission-glitch 

 

Owen Dustin is a sophomore at Poudre High School. This is his first year writing for the Poudre Press. At school, he is on the Alpine Robotics team and the unified flag football team. Outside of school he likes to mountain bike, play video games, and hang out with friends.

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