Engineers Consult Voyager’s 45-Year-Old Guides to Fix a Glitch

Engineers Consult Voyager's 45-Year-Old Guides to Fix a Glitch
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In May, NASA scientists said the Voyager 1 spacecraft had sent false data from it. attitude control system. The mysterious glitch still persists, according to the mission’s engineering team. Now, engineers are digging through decades of manuals to find a solution.

Voyager 1 was launched in 1977, along with its twin Voyager 2. Five years Studying Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and their related moons closely.

After nearly 45 years in space, both spacecraft are still operational. In 2012 Voyager 1 became the first man-made object to go beyond the limits of our sun’s influence, known as the heliopause, and enter interstellar space. around now 14.5 billion miles from Earth and sending data from beyond the solar system.

“And here we are,” Suzanne Dodd, project manager for the Voyager mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider.

Voyager 1 was designed and built in the early 1970s, complicating efforts to troubleshoot the spacecraft.

Some of the current Voyager engineers’ documents—or the technical term for the command media, paperwork detailing the spacecraft’s design and procedures—from those early mission days may have been lost or misplaced, as well as other important documents.

An engineer works on vibration acoustics and pyroshock testing for one of NASA's Voyager spacecraft on November 18, 1976.

An engineer works on an instrument for one of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft on November 18, 1976.


According to Dodd, thousands of engineers worked on the project during the first 12 years of the Voyager mission. “Since they retired in the ’70s and ’80s, there wasn’t a lot of pressure to have a project document library. People would take their boxes home, into their garage,” Dodd added. In modern missions, NASA maintains more robust document records.

There are some boxes with documents and schematics stored offsite from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Dodd and the rest of Voyager can request access to these records. Still, this can be a challenge. “Getting this information requires you to find out who is working in that area on the project,” Dodd said.

For Voyager 1’s latest malfunction, mission engineers had to look for boxes, specifically the engineers who helped design the attitude control system. “It’s a time-consuming process,” Dodd said.

Sending telemetry data back to NASA, the spacecraft’s attitude control system indicates Voyager 1’s direction in space and points the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna toward Earth, allowing it to beam the data home.

“Telemetry data is basically a state of health of the system,” Dodd said. Said. But according to Dodd, the telemetry readings that the spacecraft’s handlers receive from the system are corrupt, meaning they don’t know if the state control system is working properly.

This archive photo shows an engineer working on the construction of a large, dish-shaped Voyager high-gain antenna.  The photo was taken on July 9, 1976.

On July 9, 1976, an engineer is working on the construction of a large Voyager high-gain dish-shaped antenna.


So far, Voyager engineers haven’t found a root cause for the glitch, mainly because they haven’t been able to reset the system, Dodd said. Dodd and his team believe this is part of aging. “Not everything works forever, even in space,” he said.

Voyager’s glitch may also be affected by its position in interstellar space. According to Dodd, the spacecraft’s data shows that high-energy charged particles are in interstellar space. “It’s highly unlikely to hit the spacecraft, but if it does it could cause further damage to the electronics,” Dodd said. “We can’t pinpoint this as the source of the anomaly, but it could be a factor.”

Despite the spacecraft’s orientation problems, it still receives and executes commands from Earth, and its antenna is still pointed at us. “We didn’t see any degradation in signal strength,” Dodd said.

as part of ongoing power management effort Accelerating in recent years, engineers have been shutting down non-technical systems on Voyager probes, such as scientific instrument heaters, in the hopes that they will continue through 2030.

Saturn as seen by Voyager 1 looking back in November.  16, 1980, four days after the spacecraft passed the planet.

Voyager 1 gazed at Saturn on November 16, 1980 to give its rings this unique perspective.


From discovering unknown moons and rings to the first direct evidence of heliopause, Voyager mission helped scientists understand the cosmos. “We want the mission to last as long as possible because the scientific data is so valuable,” Dodd said.

“It’s really remarkable that both spacecraft are still up and running well – minor glitches, but they work extremely well and are still sending back this valuable data,” Dodd said. “They’re still talking to us.”

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