Engineers Pinpoint Cause of Voyager 1 Issue, Are Working on Solution

Engineers have confirmed that a small portion of corrupted memory in one of the computers aboard NASA’s Voyager 1 has been causing the spacecraft to send unreadable science and engineering data to Earth since last November. Called the flight data subsystem (FDS), the computer is responsible for packaging the probe’s science and engineering data before the telemetry modulation unit (TMU) and radio transmitter send the data to Earth.

In early March, the team issued a “poke” command to prompt the spacecraft to send back a readout of the FDS memory, which includes the computer’s software code as well as variables (values used in the code that can change based on commands or the spacecraft’s status). Using the readout, the team has confirmed that about 3% of the FDS memory has been corrupted, preventing the computer from carrying out normal operations.

The team suspects that a single chip responsible for storing part of the affected portion of the FDS memory isn’t working. Engineers can’t determine with certainty what caused the issue. Two possibilities are that the chip could have been hit by an energetic particle from space or that it simply may have worn out after 46 years.

Although it may take weeks or months, engineers are optimistic they can find a way for the FDS to operate normally without the unusable memory hardware, which would enable Voyager 1 to begin returning science and engineering data again.

Launched in 1977, the twin Voyager spacecraft flew by Saturn and Jupiter, and Voyager 2 flew by Uranus and Neptune. They are both exploring interstellar space, outside the bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun, called the heliosphere. Voyager 2 continues to operate normally.

News Media Contact
Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
626-808-2469
calla.e.cofield@jpl.nasa.gov

NASA Engineers Make Progress Toward Understanding Voyager 1 Issue

Editor’s note: This blog post was originally published March 13, 2024, on NASA’s Sun Spot blog. Future Voyager blog posts will appear here, on NASA’s Voyager blog.

Since November 2023, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has been sending a steady radio signal to Earth, but the signal does not contain usable data. The source of the issue appears to be with one of three onboard computers, the flight data subsystem (FDS), which is responsible for packaging the science and engineering data before it’s sent to Earth by the telemetry modulation unit.

On March 3, the Voyager mission team saw activity from one section of the FDS that differed from the rest of the computer’s unreadable data stream. The new signal was still not in the format used by Voyager 1 when the FDS is working properly, so the team wasn’t initially sure what to make of it. But an engineer with the agency’s Deep Space Network, which operates the radio antennas that communicate with both Voyagers and other spacecraft traveling to the Moon and beyond, was able to decode the new signal and found that it contains a readout of the entire FDS memory.

The FDS memory includes its code, or instructions for what to do, as well as variables, or values used in the code that can change based on commands or the spacecraft’s status. It also contains science or engineering data for downlink. The team will compare this readout to the one that came down before the issue arose and look for discrepancies in the code and the variables to potentially find the source of the ongoing issue.

This new signal resulted from a command sent to Voyager 1 on March 1. Called a “poke” by the team, the command is meant to gently prompt the FDS to try different sequences in its software package in case the issue could be resolved by going around a corrupted section.

Because Voyager 1 is more than 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) from Earth, it takes 22.5 hours for a radio signal to reach the spacecraft and another 22.5 hours for the probe’s response to reach antennas on the ground. So the team received the results of the command on March 3. On March 7, engineers began working to decode the data, and on March 10, they determined that it contains a memory readout.

The team is analyzing the readout. Using that information to devise a potential solution and attempt to put it into action will take time.

News Media Contact
Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
626-808-2469
calla.e.cofield@jpl.nasa.gov

Engineers Working to Resolve Issue With Voyager 1 Computer

Editor’s note: This blog post was originally published Dec. 12, 2023, on NASA’s Sun Spot blog. Future Voyager blog posts will appear here, on NASA’s Voyager blog. A previous version of this post identified the TMU as the telecommunications unit. It is the telemetry modulation unit.

Engineers are working to resolve an issue with one of Voyager 1’s three onboard computers, called the flight data system (FDS). The spacecraft is receiving and executing commands sent from Earth; however, the FDS is not communicating properly with one of the probe’s subsystems, called the telemetry modulation unit (TMU). As a result, no science or engineering data is being sent back to Earth.

Among other things, the FDS is designed to collect data from the science instruments as well as engineering data about the health and status of the spacecraft. It then combines that information into a single data “package” to be sent back to Earth by the TMU. The data is in the form of ones and zeros, or binary code. Varying combinations of the two numbers are the basis of all computer language.

Recently, the TMU began transmitting a repeating pattern of ones and zeros as if it were “stuck.” After ruling out other possibilities, the Voyager team determined that the source of the issue is the FDS. This past weekend the team tried to restart the FDS and return it to the state it was in before the issue began, but the spacecraft still isn’t returning useable data.

It could take several weeks for engineers to develop a new plan to remedy the issue. Launched in 1977, the spacecraft and its twin, Voyager 2, are the two longest-operating spacecraft in history. Finding solutions to challenges the probes encounter often entails consulting original, decades-old documents written by engineers who didn’t anticipate the issues that are arising today. As a result, it takes time for the team to understand how a new command will affect the spacecraft’s operations in order to avoid unintended consequences.

In addition, commands from mission controllers on Earth take 22.5 hours to reach Voyager 1, which is exploring the outer regions of our solar system more than 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) from Earth. That means the engineering team has to wait 45 hours to get a response from Voyager 1 and determine whether a command had the intended outcome.

Introducing the Voyager Mission Blog

An artist’s concept of the Voyager spacecraft, set against a starry blue and purple background.
An artist’s concept of the Voyager spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Launched in 1977, NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft are the agency’s longest-operating and farthest-flung probes. Voyager 1 visited Jupiter and Saturn, revealing new features of both planets and their moons. Voyager 2 followed its twin to Jupiter and Saturn before changing its trajectory to fly by Uranus and Neptune. It remains the only spacecraft to visit our solar system’s two ice giant planets.

Continuing their legacy as science pioneers, the Voyagers are the only two probes to journey into interstellar space – the space between stars. This region lies outside the heliosphere, the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields emitted by our Sun. By directly sampling the interstellar environment, the Voyagers are providing data that spacecraft closer to Earth can’t replicate. This helps scientists study both the shape of the heliosphere and its interaction with the ocean of interstellar material that the Sun is traveling through.

Readers of this blog can find occasional updates on mission science, the health of the spacecraft, and the creative solutions engineers have needed to come up with in order to keep the venerable spacecraft operating after nearly 50 years.

For more about Voyager, go to www.nasa.gov/voyager and follow along on X (formerly Twitter) at @NASAVoyager. Take Voyager’s Grand Tour with NASA’s Eyes.

News Media ContactCalla CofieldJet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.626-808-2469calla.e.cofield@jpl.nasa.gov