Engineers are consulting Voyager’s 45-year-old manuals to fix the malfunction

Engineers are consulting Voyager's 45-year-old manuals to fix the malfunction
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In May, NASA scientists said the Voyager 1 spacecraft sent back inaccurate data from itself. altitude control system. According to the mission’s engineering team, the mysterious malfunction is still ongoing. Now, to find a solution, engineers are poring over decades-old manuals.

Voyager 1, along with its twin Voyager 2, was launched in 1977 with a lifetime design. five years A close study of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and their respective moons.

After nearly 45 years in space, both spacecraft are still operational. In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first man-made object to enter interstellar space, crossing the limits of the sun’s influence, known as the heliopause. It’s around now 14.5 billion miles from Earth and sending data back from outside the solar system.

“And here we are,” Susan Dodd, project manager for the Voyager mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider.

Voyager 1 was designed and built in the early 1970s, complicating efforts to troubleshoot the spacecraft.

Some of the current Voyager engineers’ files — or the technical term for paperwork containing details about the command media, spacecraft design and procedures — from the early mission days may have been lost or misplaced, while other important documents may have been lost or misplaced.

An engineer works on vibration acoustics and pyroshock tests for one of NASA's Voyager spacecraft on November 18, 1976.

An engineer works on an instrument on one of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft on November 18, 1976.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

During the first 12 years of the Voyager mission, thousands of engineers worked on the project, Dodd said. “In the ’70s and ’80s, there wasn’t a big push to have a library of project files because they were retiring. People were taking their boxes to their homes, to their garages,” Dodd added. On modern missions, NASA keeps more reliable records of documents.

There are files and schematic boxes stored outside the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Dodd and the rest of Voyager’s staff can request access to those records. Again, this can be difficult. “Getting that information requires you to understand who is working in that area on the project,” Dodd said.

For Voyager 1’s most recent malfunction, mission engineers had to search for special boxes under the name of engineers who helped design the altitude control system. “It’s a time-consuming process,” Dodd said.

The spacecraft’s altitude control system, which sends telemetry data back to NASA, indicates Voyager 1’s orientation in space and points the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna at Earth to relay the data back home.

“Telemetry data is basically a status on the health of the system,” Dodd said. According to Dodd, the telemetry readings the spacecraft’s controllers received from the system were corrupted, meaning they did not know if the altitude control system was working properly.

This archive photo shows an engineer working on the construction of Voyager's large, dish-shaped high-gain antenna.  The photo was taken on July 9, 1976.

An engineer works on the construction of Voyager’s large, dish-shaped high-gain antenna on July 9, 1976.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

So far, Voyager engineers have been unable to find the root cause of the failure, mainly because they were unable to reset the system, Dodd said. Dodd and his team believe this is due to an aging part. “Even in space, things don’t work forever,” he said.

Voyager’s failure may also be influenced by its location in interstellar space. According to Dodd, data from the spacecraft show that high-energy charged particles are in interstellar space. “It’s unlikely that one would hit the spacecraft, but if it did, it could do more damage to the electronics,” Dodd said, adding, “We can’t pinpoint that as the source of the anomaly, but it could be a factor.”

Despite the spacecraft’s orientation problems, it still receives and executes commands from Earth, and its antenna is still pointed at us. “We saw no degradation in signal strength,” Dodd said.

as a part of ongoing energy management efforts Increasingly in recent years, engineers have been turning off non-technical systems aboard the Voyager probes, such as heaters for science instruments, hoping to keep them going until the 2030s.

Saturn seen by Voyager 1 looking back in November.  16, 1980, four days after the spacecraft flew past the planet.

Voyager 1 looked at Saturn on November 16, 1980 to give this unique perspective of its rings.


From the discovery of unknown moons and rings to the first direct evidence of the heliopause Travel mission helped scientists understand the cosmos. “We want the mission to last as long as possible because the science data is so valuable,” Dodd said.

“It’s really remarkable that both spacecraft are still working and doing well — minor glitches, but they’re working very well and still sending back this valuable data,” Dodd said, “They’re still talking to us.”

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