NASA’s Voyager 1 team is trying to figure out why the spacecraft is confused about its position in space, but the mission’s distance from Earth makes solving the problem difficult.
The Voyager 1 The mission was launched in 1977 with a design life of five years. After nearly 45 years and a series of planetary flybys later, the spacecraft is now about 14.5 billion miles (23.3 billion km) from a land, interstellar space exploration. The spacecraft has made countless discoveries, but has also suffered from a number of anomalies and mysteries. The last of these is Send unwanted telemetry data to Earth.
“We have a problem with the Voyager 1 spacecraft,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said at a meeting of the Space Studies Council of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Thursday (June 9). View more details about the situation and what it might mean for the mission.
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While the spacecraft is operating well, Zurbuchen said, messages from the Voyager hinge and control system, which keeps the spacecraft and its antenna in the correct orientation, “do not reflect what is actually happening on board.”
Getting to the bottom of this confusion isn’t easy, given the vast distance between Earth and Voyager 1, which means long delays in the time it takes to contact Voyager 1, making the spacecraft almost a victim of its longevity. “Imagine you are having a conversation with someone in which you can only say one word each day,” Zurbuchen said. “You only hear once every two days. 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 last forever. In addition to the current communications problem, Voyager 1 is also operating at temperatures much cooler than designed due to the decay of the spacecraft’s nuclear power source.
“I’m not telling you it’s the end of that mission,” he emphasized, noting that the team behind the mission had addressed many of the loopholes related to Voyager’s long life.
“Make no mistake, there were issues that, even since I was at NASA, were really worrying about Voyager; the team solved them,” he said. “But also, if one day it’s not resolved anymore, that’s an instant success and we should ditch the champagne.”