NASA's Voyager 1 Experiences Problems with Telemetry Data

The Voyager 1 spacecraft is returning some strange data from interstellar space that NASA engineers are puzzled by.

Officials from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said this week that readouts on the orientation of the 1970s-era space probe now appear to be randomly generated or don't reflect any possible scenario the spacecraft could be in.

The problematic data comes from the onboard equipment known as the "attitude articulation and control system," or AACS, which measures, reports, and changes the vehicle's position in space. The system keeps an antenna pointed at Earth to send data back to Earth.

The new bizarre situation calls into question the long-term mission's future. Given that Voyager 1 continues to return data from its science instruments, all indications are that the controls are still operational, even if the data is illogical, according to NASA. Otherwise, it appears to be in good working order.

"A mystery like this is sort of par for the course at this stage of the Voyager mission," said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager 1 and 2 in a NASA statement released Wednesday.

Both Voyager 1 and 2 are nearly 45 years old, far exceeding their original lifespans. She explained that interstellar space is a high-radiation environment in which no spacecraft has ever flown before, so she expects surprises.

The distance between Earth and Voyager 1 is 14.5 billion miles. That means light travels that distance in 20 hours and 33 minutes. In other words, it takes about two days from sending a message to Voyager to receiving a response. 

"There are some big challenges for the engineering team," Dodd said. "But I think if there's a way to solve this issue with the [telemetry], our team will find it."

Since 1977, Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, have been exploring the solar system. They were designed to study Jupiter and Saturn, as well as their moons and rings. They were designed to last only five years for the two-planet mission.

Engineers increased the mission's goals to include two more giant planets, Uranus and Neptune, after their initial success. The spacecraft have discovered four planets, 48 moons, and a variety of planetary magnetic fields and rings between them. 

The spacecraft produce about 4 watts less power per year, limiting the number of systems they can run. To save power, the mission team has turned off equipment. No science instruments have yet been turned off. According to NASA, the goal is to keep the Voyagers operational beyond 2025!

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