In May, NASA scientists reported that Voyager 1 sent back inaccurate data from its position control system. According to the mission’s technical team, the mysterious glitch is still ongoing.

Now, to find a fix, engineers are digging through decades-old manuals.

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

After nearly 45 years in space, both spacecraft are still operational. In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first-ever artificial object to travel beyond the boundary of our Sun’s influence, known as the heliopause, into interstellar space. It is now about 14.5 billion miles from Earth and sends data back from the solar system.

“No one thought it would last as long as it did,” Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider, adding, “And here we are.”

Uncovering old spacecraft documents

Voyager 1 was designed and built in the early 1970s, complicating efforts to troubleshoot the spacecraft.

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

During the Voyager mission’s first 12 years, thousands of engineers worked on the project, according to Dodd.

“When they retired in the ’70s and ’80s, there wasn’t a lot of pressure to have a library of project documents. People took their boxes home to their garage,” Dodd added. In modern missions, NASA maintains more robust documentation records.

Several boxes of documents and schematics are stored offsite from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Dodd and other Voyager personnel can request access to these records. Still, it can be a challenge.

“Getting that information requires you to find out who is working on the project in that area,” Dodd said.

For Voyager 1’s latest glitch, mission engineers had to look for boxes named after engineers who helped design the attitude control system. “It’s a time-consuming process,” Dodd said.

The source of the error
The spacecraft’s attitude control system, which sends telemetry data back to NASA, shows Voyager 1’s orientation in space. It keeps the probe’s high-gain antenna pointed at Earth, allowing it to transmit data home.

“Telemetry data is a state of the system’s health,” Dodd said. But according to Dodd, the telemetry the spacecraft crews are getting from the system is garbled, meaning they don’t know if the attitude control system is working correctly.

Dodd said that Voyager engineers have not yet been able to find the root cause of the malfunction, mainly because they have not been able to reset the system. Dodd and her team believe this is due to aging. “Not everything works forever, even in space,” she said.

Voyager’s failure may also be affected by its location in interstellar space. According to Dodd, the probe’s data indicate high-energy charged particles are found in interstellar space.

“It’s unlikely that one 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 a factor.”

Despite problems with the probe’s orientation, it still receives and executes commands from Earth, and its antenna is still pointed in our direction.

“We haven’t seen any degradation in signal strength,” Dodd said.

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Alice is the Chief Editor with relevant experience of three years, Alice has founded Galaxy Reporters. She has a keen interest in the field of science. She is the pillar behind the in-depth coverages of Science news. She has written several papers and high-level documentation.


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