Voyager 1 — one of two space probes NASA launched in 1977 to study Jupiter, Saturn and their respective moons — sends confusing data back to Earth, according to the space agency. The spacecraft’s control system regularly sends telemetry data back to NASA indicating its location. But Voyager 1’s engineering team has recently been puzzled by spacecraft readouts that contain jumbled or inaccurate data. Even more astonishing, the nearly 45-year-old probe is otherwise in good working order – the signal is still strong and the malfunction did not activate safe mode. Voyager 2 (the sister probe of Voyager 1) seems to be fine.
“A mystery like this is part of the course at this stage of the Voyager mission,” said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for the Voyager program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The spacecraft are both nearly 45 years old, which is far beyond what the mission planners expected. We are also in interstellar space – a highly radiation environment where no spacecraft has ever flown before. So there are some big challenges for the engineering team.”
Communicating with Voyager 1 is easier said than done. Both probes are now further from Earth than Pluto – Voyager 1 is estimated to be 24.5 billion miles from our planet. According to NASA, it takes about two days to receive a response from the spacecraft after sending a message.
Dodd said NASA may be able to fix the problem through software changes or possibly one of the spacecraft’s redundant hardware systems. If not, the agency will have to “adapt” to the disturbance.
Regardless, NASA will lose contact with both drones in the coming years if their energy supplies run out. Both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 run on plutonium-238, which decays over time. Scientists estimate that by 2025, neither probe will have enough plutonium-238 to function properly. There is a finite supply of plutonium on Earth, and producing it is time consuming and challenging. For many years, Russia supplied NASA with plutonium-238, until it broke this agreement in 2015. Fortunately for NASA, the US Department of Energy restarted domestic production of plutonium-238 at Oak Ridge Laboratory, enabling a number of current and future NASA missions, including NASA’s Perseverance Rover.
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