NASA repairs Voyager 1 25 billion miles away

The Voyager 1 interstellar probe is once again playing overtime. NASA engineers have indeed managed to restore communications with the venerable spacecraft, ending a seven-month period of silence caused by a technical problem. This feat marks a new milestone in interstellar exploration and demonstrates the resilience of technology and human ingenuity.

A technical problem solved billions of kilometers away

In November 2023, Voyager 1 began sending inconsistent signals following a failure in one of its three onboard computers. For months, scientists have been trying to solve this complex problem.

It was not until April 2024 that a breakthrough was achieved. The engineers sent an order to flight data subsystem (FDS) responsible for formatting scientific data before transmission. This command allowed Voyager 1 to send back its first readable message in four months, allowing engineers to pinpoint the problem on a failing computer chip.

The solution was to devise a workaround method to modify the FDS code remotely, a complex task given that Voyager 1 is located at more than 24 billion kilometers of the earth. This intervention was ultimately successful and made it possible to gradually restore the probe’s scientific instruments.

By May, two of the four instruments then began returning usable data. With a few additional adjustments, all instruments are now operational, collecting valuable information about plasma waves, magnetic fields and particles in interstellar space.

Despite this success, the complete restoration of Voyager 1 still requires work. Engineers must indeed resynchronize the timing software, essential for the synchronized operation of the three on-board computers. Maintenance of the probe’s digital tape recorder, which stores data from the plasma wave instrument, is also required.

Voyager 1 has been drifting in interstellar space since November 2018. Credits: NASA/ JLP

A well-deserved retirement

As a reminder, Voyager 1 is currently traveling through interstellar space, a region located beyond the heliosphere, the protective bubble created by magnetic fields and solar winds. At this distance, commands sent from Earth put 22.5 hours to reach the probe and the responses take that long to return. NASA’s ability to solve such complex technical problems at such a great distance is a testament to the ingenuity and perseverance of engineers and scientists.

If all goes as planned, Voyager 1 will continue to provide invaluable data until around 2025, enriching our understanding of interstellar space.

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