What’s going on with Voyager 1? The future of NASA’s interstellar spacecraft looks uncertain

Voyager 1 is the farthest any human object has ever gone from Earth. It is now more than 24 billion kilometers (15 billion miles) from our planet, flying through interstellar space. The spacecraft has remained in contact with Earth since its launch in August 1977, but in recent months that communication has become futile. Are we about to lose the second longest operating spacecraft in human history? We spoke to NASA to find out.

NASA has been monitoring the problem since September, when Voyager first started showing problems. When they spoke to the Voyager team about the problem and their solutions, they told us that they have a better understanding of what the problem is now, and they hope with that knowledge they can get Voyager 1 working again.

“In September 2023, a problem occurred with the data returning from Voyager 1. Normally sent in binary code, or a series of zeros and ones representing words, the probe instead sent only alternating ones and zeros. In fact, the call between the spacecraft and Earth was still connected, but Voyager’s ‘voice’ was replaced by a monotone dial tone,” the NASA Voyager engineering team explained to IFLScience.

“Because of this issue, scientists are not receiving scientific data or updates on the health and status of the probe, including information that could reveal the cause of the problem. Through various indirect means, the team has concluded that the problem is most likely related to the Flight Data System, one of the probe’s onboard computers. The team is working hard to resolve the issue, but this process could take months.”

The Flight Data System (FDS) configures each of Voyager 1’s instruments and monitors their operation, as well as collecting all data the spacecraft records. It also formats them before sending, so it’s bad that we can’t get it to work. Efforts to resolve the outage have so far been unsuccessful, but more complex efforts are expected to be made in the coming weeks.

“The team tried several ‘simple’ solutions, such as resetting the FDS to the state it was in before the problem started,” the team told IFLScience.

“This week, the team will send more commands to the spacecraft to gather information about the status of the onboard systems. In the coming weeks, the team expects to make more aggressive efforts to reset various systems that could be affecting the FDS.”

Despite the weight restrictions when launched, the Voyagers carried two FDSs each, but Voyager 1’s backup failed in 1981 (fortunately after it passed by Saturn). At the time, most people at NASA thought Voyager 1 had done its job because, unlike Voyager 2, it would not pass by any further worlds.

Instead, both Voyagers mapped the heliopause, studied ultraviolet sources far from solar interference, and investigated magnetic fields far from the Sun. Two of Voyager 1’s instruments have failed, and five have been disabled by ground control as “no longer a priority.” Four (one fewer than Voyager 2) are still operational, or at least were before the FDS failure. The magnetometer and cosmic ray system in particular proved invaluable during the extended mission. They are likely still collecting data, but need a functioning FDS to send that information back to us.

“There is no backup FDS, so if the team cannot resolve this issue, it would likely mean the end of operations for Voyager 1. However, Voyager 2 functions nominally; the Voyager mission will continue as long as one probe remains operational,” the Voyager team said.

The situation is serious, but the team is not giving up hope, and neither will we. Good luck to them as they figure out how to get our interstellar traveler back into clear communication with Earth.

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