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NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft is talking nonsense. Its friends on Earth are worried

This artist's impression shows one of the Voyager spacecraft moving through the darkness of space.
NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist's impression shows one of the Voyager spacecraft moving through the darkness of space.

The last time Stamatios "Tom" Krimigis saw the Voyager 1 space probe in person, it was the summer of 1977, just before it launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Now Voyager 1 is over 15 billion miles away, beyond what many consider to be the edge of the solar system. Yet the on-board instrument Krimigis is in charge of is still going strong.

"I am the most surprised person in the world," says Krimigis — after all, the spacecraft's original mission to Jupiter and Saturn was only supposed to last about four years.

These days, though, he's also feeling another emotion when he thinks of Voyager 1.

"Frankly, I'm very worried," he says.

Ever since mid-November, the Voyager 1 spacecraft has been sending messages back to Earth that don't make any sense. It's as if the aging spacecraft has suffered some kind of stroke that's interfering with its ability to speak.

"It basically stopped talking to us in a coherent manner," says Suzanne Dodd of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who has been the project manager for the Voyager interstellar mission since 2010. "It's a serious problem."

Instead of sending messages home in binary code, Voyager 1 is now just sending back alternating 1s and 0s. Dodd's team has tried the usual tricks to reset things — with no luck.

It looks like there's a problem with the onboard computer that takes data and packages it up to send back home. All of this computer technology is primitive compared to, say, the key fob that unlocks your car, says Dodd.

"The button you press to open the door of your car, that has more compute power than the Voyager spacecrafts do," she says. "It's remarkable that they keep flying, and that they've flown for 46-plus years."

Each of the Voyager probes carries an American flag and a copy of a golden record that can play greetings in many languages.
/ NASA/JPL-Caltech
/
NASA/JPL-Caltech
Each of the Voyager probes carries an American flag and a copy of a golden record that can play greetings in many languages.

Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, have outlasted many of those who designed and built them. So to try to fix Voyager 1's current woes, the dozen or so people on Dodd's team have had to pore over yellowed documents and old mimeographs.

"They're doing a lot of work to try and get into the heads of the original developers and figure out why they designed something the way they did and what we could possibly try that might give us some answers to what's going wrong with the spacecraft," says Dodd.

She says that they do have a list of possible fixes. As time goes on, they'll likely start sending commands to Voyager 1 that are more bold and risky.

"The things that we will do going forward are probably more challenging in the sense that you can't tell exactly if it's going to execute correctly — or if you're going to maybe do something you didn't want to do, inadvertently," says Dodd.

Linda Spilker, who serves as the Voyager mission's project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says that when she comes to work she sees "all of these circuit diagrams up on the wall with sticky notes attached. And these people are just having a great time trying to troubleshoot, you know, the 60's and 70's technology."

"I'm cautiously optimistic," she says. "There's a lot of creativity there."

Still, this is a painstaking process that could take weeks, or even months. Voyager 1 is so distant, it takes almost a whole day for a signal to travel out there, and then a whole day for its response to return.

"We'll keep trying," says Dodd, "and it won't be quick."

In the meantime, Voyager's 1 discombobulation is a bummer for researchers like Stella Ocker, an astronomer with Caltech and the Carnegie Observatories

"We haven't been getting science data since this anomaly started," says Ocker, "and what that means is that we don't know what the environment that the spacecraft is traveling through looks like."

That interstellar environment isn't just empty darkness, she says. It contains stuff like gas, dust, and cosmic rays. Only the twin Voyager probes are far out enough to sample this cosmic stew.

"The science that I'm really interested in doing is actually only possible with Voyager 1," says Ocker, because Voyager 2 — despite being generally healthy for its advanced age — can't take the particular measurements she needs for her research.

Even if NASA's experts and consultants somehow come up with a miraculous plan that can get Voyager 1 back to normal, its time is running out.

The two Voyager probes are powered by plutonium, but that power system will eventually run out of juice. Mission managers have turned off heaters and taken other measures to conserve power and extend the Voyager probes' lifespan.

"My motto for a long time was 50 years or bust," says Krimigis with a laugh, "but we're sort of approaching that."

In a couple of years, the ebbing power supply will force managers to start turning off science instruments, one by one. The very last instrument might keep going until around 2030 or so.

When the power runs out and the probes are lifeless, Krimigis says both of these legendary space probes will basically become "space junk."

"It pains me to say that," he says. While Krimigis has participated in space missions to every planet, he says the Voyager program has a special place in his heart.

Spilker points out that each spacecraft will keep moving outward, carrying its copy of a golden record that has recorded greetings in many languages, along with the sounds of Earth.

"The science mission will end. But a part of Voyager and a part of us will continue on in the space between the stars," says Spilker, noting that the golden records "may even outlast humanity as we know it."

Krimigis, though, doubts that any alien will ever stumble across a Voyager probe and have a listen.

"Space is empty," he says, "and the probability of Voyager ever running into a planet is probably slim to none."

It will take about 40,000 years for Voyager 1 to approach another star; it will come within 1.7 light years of what NASA calls "an obscure star in the constellation Ursa Minor" — also known as the Little Dipper.

Knowing that the Voyager probes are running out of time, scientists have been drawing up plans for a new mission that, if funded and launched by NASA, would send another probe even farther out into the space between stars.

"If it happens, it would launch in the 2030s," says Ocker, "and it would reach twice as far as Voyager 1 in just 50 years."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.
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