A model of NASA's Voyager 1 space probe.

Mystery in Deep Space: Voyager 1 Data Does not Reflect What’s Really Happening on Board

Something strange is happening with the Voyager 1 spacecraft currently located 14.5 billion miles (23.3 billion kilometers) away from Earth.

The mission team continues to search for the source of a system data issue as the spacecraft continues to return scientific data.

NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft engineering team is trying to solve a puzzle. The interstellar explorer continues to gather and return science data; it is receiving and executing commands from Earth normally.

However, the probe’s attitude articulation and control system (AACS) doesn’t provide an accurate representation of what’s going on aboard. Orientation of the spacecraft is taken care of by the AACS. The high-gain antenna on Voyager 1 keeps the spacecraft pointed precisely at Earth so that it can send data back to Earth.

There is no indication that the AACS is malfunctioning, but the telemetry data it is returning is invalid. For example, the data was generated at random or was not indicative of any state that AACS could be in.

There have been no indications that the spacecraft is in “safe mode,” which is a state where only essential operations are carried out so that engineers can investigate an issue.

There is no indication that Voyager 1’s signal has weakened either, suggesting that the high-gain antenna is oriented as prescribed to Earth.

As part of their ongoing investigation, the team will continue closely monitoring the signal to determine if the invalid data is coming directly from the AACS or from another system that is producing and transmitting telemetry data. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict how the issue might affect the spacecraft’s ability to collect and transmit science data until the problem is better understood.

Voyager 1 is far, far away

Light takes 20 hours and 33 minutes to travel 14.5 billion miles (23.3 billion kilometers) from Earth to Voyager 1. In other words, it takes around two days for a message to reach Voyager 1 and for a response to follow – a delay the mission team is used to.

“A mystery like this is sort of par for the course at this stage of the Voyager mission,” revealed Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager 1 and 2 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

“The spacecraft (Voyager 1 and Voyager 2) are almost 45 years old, far beyond what the mission planners anticipated. We’re also in interstellar space – a high-radiation environment that no spacecraft have flown in before. So there are some big challenges for the engineering team. But I think if there’s a way to solve this issue with the AACS, our team will find it.”

It is possible the team will not find the anomaly’s cause but adapt to it. It is possible that scientists can use the redundant hardware or software systems of the spacecraft to fix the problem if they find the source.

Using backup hardware isn’t a novel idea for the Voyager team: In 2017, Voyager 1’s primary thrusters showed signs of degradation and began to fail. To solve the issue, engineers switched to another set of thrusters that were used during the planetary encounters. Even though the thrusters were unused for 37 years, they still worked.

Its twin spacecraft, Voyager 2, is currently 12.1 billion miles away from Earth, or 19.5 billion kilometers away.


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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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