Memory Meltdown: NASA Engineers Pinpoint Cause of Voyager 1’s Cosmic Glitch

NASA Voyager the Explorer

This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Voyager spacecraft against a field of stars in the darkness of space. The two Voyager spacecraft are traveling farther and farther away from Earth, on a journey to interstellar space, and will eventually circle around the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Engineers have identified a corrupted memory issue in Voyager 1’s onboard computer, hindering data transmission to Earth.

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.

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