NASA’s Voyager 1 is sending strange signals from beyond our solar system – Teach Me About Science

NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, shown in this illustration, has been exploring our solar system since 1977, along with its twin, Voyager 2. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

More than 45 years after their launch, the twin Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft continue their journey further and further from our solar system. NASA recently announced that scientists working with Voyager 1 are trying to solve a mystery, the spacecraft is sending back strange data that baffles the team.

The interstellar rover is operating normally, receiving and executing commands from Earth, as well as collecting and returning scientific data. But the readings from the probe’s attitude control and articulation system (AACS) don’t reflect what’s actually happening on board, NASA officials explain.

It means that something is probably wrong with Voyager 1’s articulation and attitude control system, or AACS, which is essential to transmit data about its interstellar environment as it keeps the spacecraft’s antenna pointed directly at Earth. However, the data that the AACS is sending does not seem to match the movements and orientation of the spacecraft.

“Everything indicates that the AACS is still working, but the telemetry data it returns is invalid. For example, the data may appear to be randomly generated, or may not reflect any possible state the AACS may be in,” the statement read.

Curiously, the problem hasn’t triggered any onboard failsafe system, which is designed to put the ship into “safe mode.” Voyager 1 appears to be confused about its location in space without going into safe mode. According to NASA, the signal from its spacecraft hasn’t weakened either, suggesting that the high-gain antenna remains in its prescribed orientation with respect to Earth.

“A mystery like this is a common occurrence in this phase of the Voyager mission,” Suzanne Dodd, Voyager 1 and 2 project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in a statement. “The spacecraft are almost 45 years old, which is far beyond the projections of the mission planners. Furthermore, we are in interstellar space, a high-radiation environment that no spacecraft has ever flown in before. So the engineering team faces great challenges. But I think if there is a way to solve this problem with AACS, our team will find it.”

Voyager 1 is currently 23.3 billion kilometers from our planet, and it takes light 20 hours and 33 minutes to travel that enormous distance. So figuring out what’s going on will take a few days, since just sending a message and getting a response takes about two days.

For now it is not yet known if this will affect the future of the mission or if the spacecraft will be able to continue sending scientific data. The team will continue to monitor the signal closely while continuing to determine if the invalid data is coming directly from the AACS or from another system involved in producing and sending telemetry data. On the other hand, its twin Voyager 2, which is the same age, continues its course normally.

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