No More Gibberish: NASA Makes Progress on Fixing Its Voyager 1 Spacecraft After Months of Agony

  • Voyager 1 began sending unreadable messages to Earth about five months ago.

  • The spacecraft is transmitting engineering data, but NASA hopes to recover the scientific data, as well.

Voyager 1 is sending data back to earth
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Raised arms, applause, and smiles from ear to ear. These are just some of the reactions from the Voyager mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory when they received readable data from the Voyager 1 spacecraft for the first time in five months.

Five agonizing months. For the first time since November, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, the farthest human-made object in space, is sending back technical data with readable information about its health and the status of its systems.

After increasingly desperate attempts to repair the spacecraft, members of the Voyager flight team celebrated the good news in a Pasadena conference room last Friday, according to recent NASA announcement.

One step closer to fixing Voyager 1. Although the probe is once again sending back data on its health, NASA still hasn’t managed to complete a software update will allow it to transmit scientific information back to Earth from interstellar space, where it resides with its sister spacecraft, Voyager 2.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft began sending meaningless data back to Earth in November 2023. By March, NASA engineers still couldn’t confirm the cause of the problem. They did know one thing: One of the spacecraft’s three computers, the Flight Data Subsystem, or FDS, responsible for packaging the science and engineering data, had broken down.

The rescue. After sending some commands to the spacecraft, which takes almost a full day to respond given that it’s 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) from Earth, the mission team discovered that a single memory chip was responsible for storing the corrupted part of the FDS code. The chip deteriorated, possibly due to age, and the code had stopped working correctly.

As a solution, the team decided to place the affected code in another location in the FDS’ memory. However, they had a problem: The spacecraft only had a few kilobytes of storage left, and neither location was large enough to contain the entire source code. As mentioned above, NASA decided to divide the code into sections and store those parts in different areas of the FDS.

Putting their idea into action. After distributing the code throughout the FDS, NASA adjusted the sections to keep the system working as a whole. It also had to update all references to the location of that code in other parts of the FDS memory via new software updates.

The team began by changing the location of the code responsible for packaging the ship's engineering data on April 18.  When Voyager 1 returned readable data on April 20, NASA knew that its solution had worked.

For the first time in five months, Voyager 1 engineers can check the spacecraft’s health and status. That doesn’t mean the spacecraft is completely fixed, though. Now, they’re going to try to try out the same fix with the part of the code that handles science data. The goal: to get the nearly five-decade-old spacecraft to operate normally again.

Images | NASA

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