Highlights

  • Random, absurd signals from Voyager 1
  • Voyager 1 is 45-years-old
  • Team of engineers working to figure out the problem

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What is Voyager 1 trying to tell NASA? Engineers perplexed by mysterious signals

Voyager 1 is 23.3 billion kilometers away from Earth at the threshold of the solar system 

Voyager 1, which is the exploratory spacecraft launched by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1977 is at the threshold of the solar system. It is 23.3 billion kilometres away from Earth and continues to function as good as one can expect a 45-year-old craft to in interstellar space rife with extreme radiation.

However, the scientists and engineers at NASA have seemingly encountered communication issues with Voyager. Unusual, and random signals are being sent back to Earth from the spacecraft.

Readouts from the system that controls the spacecraft's orientation in space are not corroborating with Voyager's actual actions. The attitude articulation and control system, or AACS makes sure that the probe's antenna faces Earth so that data and communication can carry on smoothly.

The issues have not triggered any onboard fault protection systems that are designed to put the spacecraft into a 'safe-mode', when only essential operations are carried out. The 'safe-mode' gives engineers ample time to work through the problems onboard.

However, the connection with Voyager has not weakened so the scientists are of the opinion that the AACS antenna is still pointed towards Earth.

So, where are the unusual communications coming from? That is what the team is trying to determine at NASA. It is still unsure if the data is coming directly from the AACS or there is something else that is causing these signals to come through.

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"A mystery like this is sort of par for the course at this stage of the Voyager mission," said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager 1 and 2 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement.

"The spacecraft is almost 45 years old, which is far beyond what the mission planners anticipated. We're also in interstellar space -- a high-radiation environment that no spacecraft have flown in before. 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."

Dodd went onto add that if the team does not determine the source of the issue, they might just adapt to it. If they do get to the root of the problem, they might try to rectify it through software changes or relying on a redundant hardware system. Effectively, a failure to decode the mystery will only enhance the narrative of an alien life.

This, however, is not the first time NASA's engineers have encountered a problem with Voyager. Back in 2017, Voyager 1's primary thrusters started to degrade. The engineers then decided to switch to another set of thrusters that were originally used during the spacecraft's planetary encounters.

Voyager 2, a twin spacecraft, continues to operate well in interstellar space, 19.5 billion kilometers from Earth. Now, they have become the only two spacecraft to gather data from interstellar space and provide insights about the heliosphere, or the bubble created by the sun that extends beyond the planets in our solar system.

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