Key takeaways

  • After a computer breakdown in November 2023, Voyager 1’s four sensors are back online, providing valuable science data.
  • Engineers fixed the issue by reprogramming the spacecraft’s software to avoid a damaged memory chip, marking the first software update in interstellar space.
  • The spacecraft faces diminishing power levels and increasing coldness, necessitating the shutdown of non-essential systems to conserve energy.
  • Despite challenges, scientists hope to keep Voyager 1 operational until the 2030s, with a target of reaching the 50th anniversary of its launch in 2027.
  • The announcement comes shortly after the death of Ed Stone, Voyager’s long-time project scientist, who played a key role in the mission’s success from its inception.

WASHINGTON — The four sensors aboard NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft are providing science data for the first time since a computer breakdown, with scientists hoping to keep the mission operational for another decade.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said June 13 that the spacecraft’s four sensors, which monitor plasma waves, magnetic fields, and particles in interstellar space, had resumed data collection. Two of the instruments began operating immediately after orders were delivered to the spacecraft on May 19, but the other two required what JPL described as “some additional work” to restart functioning.

The instruments had been inactive since November 2023, when a computer fault on the spaceship resulted in distorted data. A “tiger team” of engineers identified the problem as a damaged memory chip in one of the spacecraft’s computers and changed software to avoid utilizing that chip. That attempt successfully reestablished connection with the spacecraft.

“The tiger team was able to reprogram and relocate that code, first for the engineering portion of the data modes coming from the spacecraft,” said Linda Spilker, Voyager project scientist, at a meeting of the Outer Planets Analysis Group on June 13, when she announced the instruments were operational again. “We are now getting science data back from all four Voyager 1 science instruments.”

“This is the first flight software update made to a spacecraft in interstellar space,” she stated. “The last time we really did much with the flight software was prior to launch.” Voyager 1 launched in 1977.

With the spacecraft’s computer back online, the main constraint limiting the life of Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, is diminishing power levels. Each spacecraft loses around four watts per year due to the decay of its plutonium-238 power supply and the depreciation of the thermocouples that convert the heat from that decay into electricity.

Controllers have handled the falling power by shutting off non-essential systems, such as heaters that had kept instruments and other components warm. “What’s happening is that the spacecraft is becoming cold, so we have both a power concern as well as a thermal concern,” Spilker explained.

She stated that the mission would eventually have to begin shutting off instrumentation, but she is hopeful that the spacecraft will be able to run for another decade.

“With a little bit of luck, it might be possible to continue the Voyager spacecraft taking data out to the 2030s,” she stated. If Voyager 1 survives to 2035, it will be 200 astronomical units, or around 30 billion kilometers, from the sun. It is presently more over 24 billion km from the Sun.

“Right now, our focus is to make it out to 2027,” she stated. “That will be the 50th anniversary of the launch of both Voyager spacecraft.”

The revelation that Voyager 1’s instruments started returning data occurred two days after JPL announced the death of Ed Stone, who served as Voyager’s project scientist from the mission’s beginning in 1972 until 2022, when he retired and was succeeded by Spilker. Stone, a physics professor at Caltech, also served as the school’s director from 1991 until 2001.

“Ed Stone would often say during the planetary flyby phase that we had a rare opportunity with the alignment of the planets, and we seized it,” she added of the “Grand Tour” course that allowed the Voyager spacecraft to pass by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. “I would add that both Voyagers still have rare opportunities, and Ed will continue to seize them.”

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