NASA engineers scratch heads as Voyager 1 starts spouting cosmic gibberish

Science and telemetry data hit by latest issue

NASA's veteran Voyager 1 spacecraft has stopped transmitting engineering and science data back to Earth.

The issue appears to be with the Flight Data System (FDS), which is not communicating correctly with one of the probe's subsystems - the Telemetry Modulation Unit (TMU).

Rather than useful data, the TMU is simply transmitting a repeating pattern of ones and zeroes as if it were "stuck," according to NASA.

The FDS is responsible for collecting data from Voyager 1's science instruments as well as on the general health of the spacecraft. This is all packaged up and sent back to Earth by the TMU. Having worked through the possibilities, the Voyager team reckons the issue lies with the FDS.

"This past weekend the team tried to restart the FDS and return it to the state it was in before the issue began, but the spacecraft still isn't returning useable data," NASA says.

Engineers face multiple challenges. First, the Voyagers are famously old – dealing with their quirks involves poring through decades-old documents. Commands sent to the probes must be meticulously verified to prevent unintended consequences.

And then there is the sheer amount of time it takes to communicate with the Voyagers. A command from mission control on Earth will take more than 22 hours to reach Voyager 1. It can, therefore, take 45 hours to determine whether a given instruction worked as expected.

NASA reckons it will be several weeks of work for engineers to devise a new plan to deal with the problem.

Voyager 1 suffered a telemetry glitch in 2022 that resulted in garbled data on the probe's attitude being sent back to Earth. That issue was resolved by switching to a different computer. However, in that instance, Voyager 1 continued returning science data. The latest problem has stopped that.

The next time you find yourself having to diagnose and fix a problem remotely, remember that it could always be worse, even if sometimes it feels as though that misbehaving server is also 15 billion miles away. ®

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