Voyager 1 is sending NASA mysterious data from interstellar space

25 May 2022

Illustration of the NASA Voyager 1 probe, which was launched in 1977. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While data is still being received from the Voyager 1 probe, one of its control systems is sending back confusing data to NASA engineers.

Nearly 45 years into its space journey, the NASA Voyager 1 probe is sending back mysterious data that has left the spacecraft’s engineers confused.

The engineering team said Voyager 1 appears to still be operating normally, as it is receiving and executing commands from Earth while transmitting scientific data. However, the data being received from the probe’s attitude articulation and control system (AACS) does not make sense to the engineers.

The AACS is designed to control the probe’s orientation and keep its high-gain antenna pointed at Earth. While it appears the system is still functional, the team said the data is sometimes showing up as randomly generated or not reflecting any possible state the system could be in.

Project manager for Voyager 1 and 2 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Suzanne Dodd, said a mystery like this is “sort of par for the course at this stage”, since the spacecraft is almost 45 years old and “far beyond what the mission planners anticipated”.

“We’re also in interstellar space – a high-radiation environment that no spacecraft have flown in before,” Dodd added. “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.”

Voyager 1 flew past the edge of our solar system almost a decade ago, with NASA confirming its entry to interstellar space in 2014. During this long voyage, it has sent back incredible images of some of the outer planets of our solar system.

The probe continues to send back interesting data from interstellar space. Last year, a team of researchers said a persistent vibrating hum of interstellar gas, or plasma waves, had been detected by the spacecraft.

Dodd said it is possible that the team will never find the source of the current Voyager 1 mystery and will have to adapt to it. If they do find the issue, they may be able to send a software update or use one of the spacecraft’s redundant hardware systems to fix it.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic