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After the transmission of inconsistent signals from the Voyager 1 probe in May this year, NASA finally discovered the source of the problem and was able to solve it (at least in part). A great feat to know that the ship is currently more than 23,500 million kilometers from Earth. The pioneering probe had transmitted inconsistent data from the device ensuring that its long radio antenna was pointed at Earth. This information was notably pre-transmitted by a faulty onboard computer, generating nonsense once it reached Earth. In short, even with more than 45 years of activity, the space probe would still be far from retired, and it seems that it still has many years ahead of it. It may finally cross the “ultimate” frontier of the solar system, the Oort cloud, and may yet deliver important discoveries.
Since May, Voyager 1 has been operating normally and continues to transmit data to Earth through its Attitude and Articulation Control System (AACS), ensuring that its antenna is pointed at our planet. However, the information received seemed strangely inconsistent.
According to NASA, the origin of the problem would be a faulty on-board computer for years, which corrupted the information, and to which the AACS had sent the information to process it and receive it on Earth. To solve the problem, engineers simply reprogrammed the probe to send data from another onboard computer, a less risky solution.
Today, the ship no longer activates its backup system (the safe mode) and no longer detects anything abnormal. Normally, though, it shouldn’t have transmitted the information to that faulty computer, because that would mean there’s an upstream problem as well. Therefore, the device would have received an erroneous command from another faulty system.
Research teams are still trying to determine where this problem is coming from. ” We’ll do a full reading of the AACS memoirs and see what you’ve done. says Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion in California. ” This will help us diagnose the issue that caused the telemetry inconsistencies in the first place. “, she adds.
Despite this unresolved upstream issue, scientists say the long-term health of the probe is not threatened in any way, as normal telemetry has been restored. ” We are cautiously optimistic, but we still have to do some research Dodd says.
On the way to the Oort cloud?
Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 is now nearly 14.5 billion miles from Earth. Crossing the heliosphere, it has been officially in the interstellar medium for several years. In particular, it crossed the line (heliopause) where the solar winds meet the cold, dense interstellar medium. Since then, the probe has provided valuable data on how the heliosphere interacts with interstellar winds.
This new area of research has led to important discoveries such as the detection of a new type of electron explosion in 2020.” The fact that the Voyager probes are returning information about the limit of the Sun’s influence gives us unprecedented insight into truly uncharted territory. “, emphasizes in another press release Nicola Fox, director of the heliophysics division at NASA headquarters.
However, you should know that the probe and its twin (Voyager 2) are still far from having actually left the solar system. In fact, the ultimate limit of our solar system is beyond the outer edge of the Oort cloud, where the Sun no longer exerts its gravitational influence. This asteroid cloud is estimated to start about 1,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun and extend out to 100,000 AU. Therefore, the two probes would take almost 300 years to reach its inner edge and 30,000 more to cross it.
The two probes, which have already exceeded all expectations and traveled far beyond their original destination, may have a slim chance of reaching the Oort cloud. In fact, they have been remotely reprogrammed many times to now be equipped with capabilities far superior to those they had at the time of their launch. They were originally intended for missions of around five years and have almost tenfold their useful life. Future generations of scientists may find a way to send them even further.