NASA engineers identify the exact cause of Voyager 1 spacecraft problem

Engineers at NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), which manages the Voyager 1 spacecraft, have identified the exact cause of Voyager 1’s onboard computer problem. NASA said it on April 4, 2024.

NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft is traveling through interstellar space
An artist’s illustration shows NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, which is currently traveling through interstellar space, the space between stars. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft launched on September 5, 1977. The spacecraft passed over Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1980, and the heliosphere (the imaginary sphere of the sun’s influence) in 2012 and entered interstellar space (the space between stars). 

It is the farthest human-made object from Earth and the longest-operating spacecraft in the history of mankind. Currently, the spacecraft is at a distance of more than 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) away from Earth and exploring interstellar space.

The positions of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in the interstellar space
The positions of NASA’s Voyager 1 and its twin Voyager 2 spacecraft in interstellar space. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Throughout its journey in space, the spacecraft has been communicating with the earth’s control room.

However, since November 2023, the spacecraft has been communicating with Earth through radio signals, but one of its onboard computers, called the Flight Data System (FDS), is sending unreadable science and engineering data (useless data) back to Earth. Here’s the computer’s data, meaning binary code, which is in the form of ones and zeros.

According to NASA, the FDS memory includes its code, or instructions for what to do, as well as variables, or values, used in the code that can change based on commands or the spacecraft’s status. It also contains science or engineering data for downlinking.

When the engineers have compared this readout to the one that came down before the issue arose, they have found that about 3% of the FDS memory has been corrupted, preventing the computer from carrying out normal operations.

The engineers suspect that a single chip of the FDS memory isn’t working. They have mentioned two possibilities as the reason for this: either the chip could have been hit by an energetic particle from space or it simply may have worn out after 46 years.

Now that engineers have been able to identify the exact cause of the Voyager 1 spacecraft’s problems, they are now hopeful that they will find a way to get the FDS to function normally.

However it may take weeks or months because it takes 22.5 hours for a command to travel from Earth to Voyager 1 and another 22.5 hours for a response to make it back. So the engineers have to wait 45 hours to get a response from Voyager 1. 

Visit here to see the current position of Voyager 1 spacecraft in the interstellar space.

Related article: Voyager 1 spacecraft unable to send data due to an issue with its onboard computer

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Ashim

Ashim Chandra Sarkar founded Space & Telescope in 2022. He holds a M.Sc. in physics and has five years of research experience in optical astronomy. His passion for astronomy inspired him to open this website. He is responsible for the editorial vision of spaceandtelescope.com.

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