Voyager 1 Sends Cryptic Binary Signal from Space, Puzzling NASA

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Illustration of Voyager 1. (Caltech/NASA-JPL)

Voyager 1, the farthest human-made object from Earth, is transmitting a perplexing sequence of 1s and 0s, posing a challenge for NASA scientists stationed 24 billion kilometers (15 billion miles) away.

NASA engineers are working tirelessly to address the glitch, with communication delays of approximately 22.5 hours for messages to reach interstellar space. The probe can still receive commands from Earth, but the resolution of the issue will take days to determine.

This occurrence is not the first time Voyager 1 has sent back erratic data. In 2022, the probe encountered issues transmitting data through a malfunctioning onboard computer, leading to corrupted outgoing messages.

While engineers successfully identified and resolved the problem in that instance, it required several months.

The current glitch stems from a communication disruption between one of Voyager 1’s three onboard computers, known as the flight data system (FDS), and a subsystem called the telemetry modulation unit (TMU).

As a result, no scientific data about interstellar space is reaching Earth, and the engineering data detailing the probe’s health and status is in disarray. Despite attempts, even the classic solution of turning the FDS on and off hasn’t rectified the issue.

The NASA team is now delving into decades-old documentation on the outdated technology to comprehend the probe’s functioning.

Today’s smartphones can process over 100 billion instructions per second, while Voyager’s computers handle a mere 8,000 per second.

Originally launched in 1977 to explore Jupiter and Saturn, both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes are now journeying further into interstellar space than initially planned.

Although scientists hope to extend Voyager 1’s mission until its 50th anniversary if the data transmission issue is resolved, the probes’ days are numbered. Positioned beyond the Oort Cloud on the distant fringes of the Kuiper Belt, they will eventually go silent as their generators lose power.

Some have proposed sending a final message to Voyager 1 before its communication system ceases. These ‘last words’ could endure for millennia if encoded into the onboard computers’ memory.

The recent glitch from Voyager 1 serves as a poignant reminder that time is running out to bid farewell.