A patch for computer software one light-day away on Voyager 1

25 March 2024

One of the computers on NASA’s deep space probe Voyager 1 is experiencing some sort of malfunction, with recent signals from the probe containing no usable data. Mission engineers are apparently confident the problem can be resolved, even though Voyager 1 is almost a light-day distant, meaning it’ll take time to apply a fix:

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.

Although Voyager 1, and deep space counterpart Voyager 2, have left the solar system and are in interstellar space, it is estimated it will take Voyager 1 another three hundred years to reach the Oort cloud. The vastly scattered debris, rocky remnants of the formation of the solar system, that constitutes the Oort cloud, may extend more than two light years from the Sun. That’s about half way to the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri.

So to be truly beyond the solar system, I imagine the Voyager probes will need to clear the Oort cloud first. We might be waiting sometime for that to happen. It’s incredible the way mission controllers can keep tabs on deep space missions though, and trouble shoot, and perhaps remedy problems, despite their distance from the Sun.

About twenty years ago, scientists were puzzled by changes in the trajectories of deep space probes Pioneers 10 and 11. Somehow both craft, then located in the Kuiper belt, which is situated beyond the orbit of Neptune, appeared to have slowed down slightly. All sorts of theories were advanced to account for the anomaly, including the idea that gravity may be behaving in ways not seen before.

After analysing gargantuan quantities of data, mission engineers determined that heat loss was having a subtle influence on the movements of the probes, in that it was acting a little like a brake. Contact with both vessels had been lost by that stage, so even if a fix could have been devised, it unfortunately could not have been applied.


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