Voyager 1 space probe producing ‘anomalous telemetry data’

Engineers debugging at 160 bits per second, with 41 hours latency

NASA engineers are investigating anomalous telemetry data produced by venerable space probe Voyager 1.

A Wednesday announcment states that the probe is operating normally, receiving and executing commands from Earth, and still doing science and phoning home with data.

But Voyager 1’s attitude articulation and control system (AACS) – kit that helps point the probe’s antenna towards Earth - does not currently “reflect what’s actually happening onboard.”

NASA says AACS data “may appear to be randomly generated, or does not reflect any possible state the AACS could be in.”

The good news is that the craft is still doing fine. It’s not needed to enter safe mode and its signal is still strong, so it appears the main antenna is properly aligned even if system data suggests otherwise.

NASA engineers are now trying to debug the probe, a formidable challenge as data flows from Voyager at 160 bits per second, and signals take 20 hours and 33 minutes to reach the probe. Yes – that means round trip latency of 41 hours and six minutes.

If you have whatever access is needed to ping Voyager 1 to test that, please don’t. Let NASA do their work in the name of science!

Thankfully, Voyager 1 has backup systems that NASA can use to keep the probe alive and recent history suggests there’s a decent chance they’ll work, as happened in 2017 when the craft successfully fired thrusters it hadn’t used since 1980. Updating system software to work around the glitches is also possible.

“If there’s a way to solve this issue with the AACS, our team will find it,” stated Suzanne Dodd, the project manager for Voyager 1 and 2 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

But NASA has also warned that Voyager 1 is now 45 years old, has vastly exceeded its expected working life, and is now in the high-radiation environment of interstellar space. Humanity’s only experience operating there is the Voyagers, so we don’t know a lot about how the 1970s tech they carry is holding up 23.3 billion kilometres from home. ®

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