Right now, about 23.3 billion kilometres from Earth, the plucky Voyager 1 spacecraft continues the journey it started some 45 years ago.
The fact that Voyager 1 is still able to collect science data and send it back to Earth is impressive but, as the craft travels through interstellar space, oddities are appearing.
Those oddities have to do with telemetry data – specifically readouts from the probe’s attitude articulation and control system or AACS. All signs point to the system still being operational but the data doesn’t reflect what is happening onboard. This presents as data that may appear to be randomly generated or shows the craft is in a position it couldn’t possibly be in.
The problem with this is that the AACS controls Voyager 1’s orientation as well as keeping its high-gain antenna pointed directly at Earth. For now, that antenna is still pointing where it should be and the probe hasn’t been kicked into safe mode.
“A mystery like this is sort of par for the course at this stage of the Voyager mission,” explains project manager for Voyager 1 and 2 at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Suzanne Dodd.
“The spacecraft are both almost 45 years old, which is far beyond what the mission planners anticipated. We’re also in interstellar space – a high-radiation environment that no spacecraft have flown in before. So there are some big challenges for the engineering team. But I think if there’s a way to solve this issue with the AACS, our team will find it,” added Dodd.
Interstellar space, as you might be aware, is the space between star systems in a galaxy. It is made up of gases in various forms as well as dust and cosmic rays.
Eventually, Voyager 1 and 2 will meet their end but even then their mission will continue. Onboard each of the probes is a so-called Golden Record which is meant to convey who humanity is, where we are and what we know should a distant civilization happen upon the probes.
The creation of these records required some extreme out of the box thinking so as to ensure that the information was relevant. As Bill Nye exclaims in the video below “It’s cool!”.