Today, the Voyagers have traveled farther and lasted longer than any other spacecraft in history. They are so far away that a one-way radio signal traveling at the speed of light takes almost 22 hours to reach Voyager 1 and just over 18 to catch up with Voyager 2. Moreover, every day they move away by another three to four light seconds. However, the twins are still functioning. They send data to Earth daily from far beyond the solar system’s most distant known planets. But, in May 2022, something weird happened. Voyager 1 started sending some strange data from interstellar space, and the issue hasn’t been resolved to date.

Something's Seriously Wrong With The Voyager 1 Probe 23 Billion km Away. 1
Voyager 1 being launched aboard a Titan IIIE launch vehicle

The mysterious glitch

Voyager 1 was designed in the early 1970s and launched in 1977 for a prime mission of four years. In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft ever to exit the boundary of the solar system, the heliopause, to enter interstellar space. Today, the spacecraft is around 14.5 billion miles (23.2 billion km) from Earth, and in covering this journey so far, the spacecraft’s AACS system has played a crucial role. An acronym for Attitude Articulation and Control Subsystem, AACS handles the spacecraft’s orientation. It also keeps Voyager 1’s high gain antenna pointed at Earth, enabling it to send data back home.

An illustration of the Solar System's boundary | Image: NASA GSFC
An illustration of the Solar System’s boundary | Image: NASA GSFC

Although the AACS has been working perfectly well for 45 years, recently, an issue was reported with the readouts obtained from it. AACS’s readings were not synchronized with the spacecraft’s movement and orientation. This made the spacecraft appear confused about its location in space without even going into safe mode.

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Why is it difficult to find a solution?

When a spacecraft is built, there are several technicalities that only the people involved in its construction in the forefront know. Mostly, such details are secured in documents and manuals so that people can later access them in case of emergencies. But as already mentioned above, Voyager 1 was designed and built in the early 1970s. During those years, there wasn’t a push to have a proper project documentation library. Instead, people used to carry boxes containing documents back home.

So although current Voyager engineers have some documentation, the paperwork containing technical details on the spacecraft’s design and procedures is probably lost or misplaced. The absence of these details complicates the ongoing efforts to troubleshoot the spacecraft’s problems and is one of the sole reasons that a solution hasn’t been found even after two months have passed since the glitch was reported.

An illustration of Voyager 1 | Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
An illustration of Voyager 1 | Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A faint beacon of hope

Although all the details of Voyager 1’s engineering are not available, some boxes with documents and schematics are stored off-site from the JPL. Even though obtaining these documents is quite challenging and time-consuming, it is expected that a thorough analysis of them can offer great help in finding a solution to Voyager’s ongoing glitch.

Possible reasons behind the glitch

Along with finding possible solutions to the problem, efforts are also being made to understand the core reason behind such a malfunction of Voyager 1’s critical instrument. And after a careful analysis of the issue, researchers have arrived at differentiated conclusions.

In one of the possibilities, the glitch might result from the probe’s aging. In another possible scenario, as per the spacecraft’s data, several high-energy charged particles exist out in interstellar space. Although their probability of hitting the spacecraft is relatively low, if they do so, they can significantly damage the electronics, thereby causing such glitches. Nevertheless, despite these possibilities, the root cause for the glitch is still unknown. 

Voyager 1 is receiving and executing commands from Earth in a healthy way. Also, its antenna is still pointed toward us, and there hasn’t been any degradation in the signal strength. This means that even amidst minor glitches, the probe is operating extremely well and is talking to us. Furthermore, with the power management procedure going on and NASA shutting down non-technical systems on board the Voyager probes, the spacecraft is expected to continue until 2030.

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