NASA’s Voyager 1 Is Glitching, Sending Nonsense From Interstellar Space

The aging spacecraft, launched in 1977, is transmitting a gibberish pattern of ones and zeros back to Earth

Illustration of a spacecraft
An artist's rendering of one of the Voyager spacecrafts. Caltech / NASA-JPL

NASA’s Voyager 1 probe is experiencing a glitch that’s causing it to send a repeating, gibberish pattern of ones and zeroes back to Earth, the agency announced this week. The spacecraft is still able to receive and execute commands sent to it, but it’s unable to transmit back science or engineering data. 

After ruling out other possibilities, the Voyager team determined the spacecraft’s issues stem from one of its three computers, called the flight data system (FDS). Last weekend, engineers tried to restart the FDS to see whether they could resolve the problem, but the probe still isn’t returning usable data, according to NASA. 

Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 and its twin spacecraft Voyager 2 are NASA’s longest-operating mission. They are the only probes to ever explore interstellar space, or the vast area between stars. The spacecraft were initially launched to study Jupiter and Saturn, and they were only intended to last five years. But after making a series of discoveries—including spotting active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io—NASA extended their mission. Both spacecraft carry a “golden record,” a 12-inch, gold-plated, copper disk that contains sounds and images to represent humankind in case any extraterrestrials ever encounter them.

By today’s standards, the technology aboard the Voyager crafts is ancient. Their computers only have 69.63 kilobytes of memory—about enough to store an average jpeg file. To make room for new observations, they must erase data after sending it to Earth.

“The Voyager computers have less memory than the key fob that opens your car door,” Linda Spilker, a planetary scientist who started working on the Voyager missions in 1977, told Scientific American’s Tim Folger last year.

But the simple, yet hardy design of the Voyagers has contributed to their longevity and allowed them to hop between missions to collect valuable data. Still, both aging spacecraft have experienced glitches. Over the summer, a human error caused Voyager 2’s antenna to tilt two degrees away from Earth, leading researchers to lose contact with the craft for more than a week before its functions returned to normal. In 2022, an issue in the attitude articulation and control system (AACS) of Voyager 1 caused it to send “garbled information about its health and activities to mission controllers, despite operating normally,” per NASA. Engineers were eventually able to solve the glitch. 

Right now, Voyager 1 is hurtling through space about 15 billion miles from Earth and Voyager 2 is more than 12.6 billion miles away. Because the spacecraft are so distant, commands from mission controllers take 22.5 hours to reach Voyager 1. This means it takes 45 hours to determine whether a command to the spacecraft has had the intended outcome. NASA says it could take several weeks to develop a new plan to fix the current FDS problem. 

“Finding solutions to challenges the probes encounter often entails consulting original, decades-old documents written by engineers who didn’t anticipate the issues that are arising today,” NASA says in its statement. “As a result, it takes time for the team to understand how a new command will affect the spacecraft’s operations in order to avoid unintended consequences.” 

Calla Cofield, a media relations specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the mission, tells CNN’s Ashley Strickland engineers are now working to find the underlying cause of the problem before figuring out next steps. 

“The Voyagers are performing far, far past their prime missions and longer than any other spacecraft in history,” Cofield tells the publication. “So, while the engineering team is working hard to keep them alive, we also fully expect issues to arise.”

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