NASA launched the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes in 1977 to explore the outer solar system, and 45 years later, both are still (partially) functional. Voyager 1, which is over 14 billion miles from Earth, just got a software update.
NASA, the civil space agency of the United States government, first reported a hardware problem with Voyager 1 back in May. The probe’s articulation and control system (AACS), which is responsible for aligning Voyager’s antenna to aim at the Earth, wasn’t returning accurate telemetry data. NASA engineers later found the cause — the AACS was sending data through an onboard computer “known to have stopped working years ago.”
The problem was solved by sending a command to Voyager’s AACS, instructing it to use the correct computer for data processing. That might sound like a simple fix, but Voyager 1 is over 14 billion miles from Earth (~22 billion km), operating on reduced power and a weak radio connection. Voyager 1 and 2 were also designed in the 1970s, so their computers aren’t exactly the most modern equipment.
Voyager 1, which was launched on September 5, 1977, was built to fly by Jupiter, Saturn, and Saturn’s largest moon Titan. It continued its outwards path since then, and is currently in the “interstellar medium,” a high-radiation region of space beyond our own solar system. Voyager 1 has had other technical problems recently — NASA had to switch Voyager 1 to backup thrusters in 2017, which are still working, even though they had been unused for 37 years by that point.
Both Voyager 1 and 2 are expected to continue operating at least one science instrument until around 2025, when power from their thermoelectric generator drops too low.
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