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. Mystery in Deep Space: Voyager 1 Data Does not Reflect What’s Really Happening on Board.
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.
What data has Voyager 1 sent to Earth?
NASA released a statement on 18 May which said a team was currently investigating “the source of a system data issue”.
According to the agency, the Voyager 1 probe is “operating normally, receiving and executing commands from Earth, along with gathering and returning science data.”
However, it is believed the information and data it is sending from the explorer “don’t reflect what’s actually happening onboard”.
NASA says an antenna attached to Voyager, which is pointed at Earth to send data back, appears to be working but is sending back the invalid data.
How long has Voyager 1 been in space?
The space probe was launched into the Solar System in 1977.
It has been operating for a total of 44 years, with its mission extended to explore the boundaries of the outer helisphere and the interstellar medium.
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.