NASA’s Voyager 1 team is trying to figure out why the spacecraft seems confused about its location in space, but the mission’s distance from Earth makes solving the problem difficult.
The Traveler 1 mission launched in 1977 with a theoretical lifespan of five years. Nearly 45 years and a series of planetary flybys later, the spacecraft is now about 14.5 billion miles (23.3 billion kilometers) from Earth, exploring interstellar space. The spacecraft made countless discoveries, but also suffered a number of anomalies and mysteries. The last of them is unwanted telemetry data sent back to Earth.
“We have a problem with the Voyager 1 spacecraft,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, told a meeting of the Space Studies Council of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering. and Medicine on Thursday, June 9, where he provided more details on the situation and what it could mean for the mission.
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While the spacecraft performs well, messages from Voyager’s articulation and attitude control system, which keeps the spacecraft and its antenna in the correct orientation, “do not reflect what is actually happening on board,” Zurbuchen said.
Getting to the bottom of this confusion isn’t easy, however, due to the vast distance between Earth and Voyager 1, which means long delays in the time it takes to communicate with Voyager 1, making the ship almost space a victim of its longevity. “Imagine having a conversation with someone in which you can only say one word every day,” Zurbuchen said. “And you only hear back every other day. That’s the kind of discussion we have.”
Zurbuchen is confident that the Voyager team will solve the mystery, but noted that the spacecraft cannot go on forever. In addition to the current communication problem, Voyager 1 also operates in much colder temperatures than it was designed for due to the decay of the spacecraft’s nuclear power source.
“I’m not telling you this is the end of this mission,” he pointed out, noting that the team behind the mission solved many problems over Voyager’s long life.
“Make no mistake, there were issues, even since I’ve been at NASA, that were really concerning about Voyager; the team solved it,” he said. “But also, if one day it’s no longer resolved, it’s an immediate success and we should break out the champagne.”
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