Voyager 1’s Concerning Signal From Interstellar Space Is Actually A Message!

The farthest human-built object is in trouble. Voyager 1 is 24 billion kilometers (15 billion miles) from our planet, flying through interstellar space, and over the last several months NASA has not been able to properly communicate with it. But a first step towards a solution has been achieved. The engineering team has recognized a message within the stream of 0s and 1s coming from the spacecraft.

“In September 2023, an issue arose with the data coming back from Voyager 1. Normally transmitted in binary code, or a series of 0s and 1s representing words, the probe was instead sending only alternating 1s and 0s. Effectively, the call between the spacecraft and the Earth was still connected, but Voyager’s ‘voice’ was replaced with a monotonous dial tone,” the NASA Voyager engineering team explained to IFLScience in February.

“Because of this issue, scientists are not receiving any science data or updates about the probe’s health and status, including information that might reveal the source of the problem. Through various indirect means, the team has concluded that the issue is most likely with the Flight Data System [FDS], one of the probe’s onboard computers. The team is working hard to resolve the issue, but this process may take months.”

Several approaches were attempted but something changed early this month. On March 1, the engineering team sent a poke – a command designed to force the FDS to try different sequences within its software package – just in case there is a corrupted section and it can be bypassed.

Voyager 1 is 22 light-hours and 34 light-minutes away, so it took almost a day for the signal to get there and almost a day for something to get back to NASA. The poke did not solve the problem but it did something for sure.

“On March 3, the Voyager mission team saw activity from one section of the FDS that differed from the rest of the computer’s unreadable data stream. The new signal was still not in the format used by Voyager 1 when the FDS is working properly, so the team wasn’t initially sure what to make of it,” the Voyager team wrote in a blog post.

 “But an engineer with the agency’s Deep Space Network, which operates the radio antennas that communicate with both Voyagers and other spacecraft traveling to the Moon and beyond, was able to decode the new signal and found that it contains a readout of the entire FDS memory.”

The FDS memory contains not just its code but also data about the status of the spacecraft. The team is now comparing this data with data received before September to work out what might have happened and how it could be fixed.

“There is no backup FDS, so if the team cannot fix this issue, it would likely be the end of operations for Voyager 1. However, Voyager 2 is operating nominally; the Voyager mission will continue as long as one probe is still working,” the Voyager team told IFLScience previously. 

NASA’s planned budget for the coming years shows commitment to keeping the Voyager mission going well past its 50th anniversary in 2027.

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