Gibberish download may save Voyager 1 deep space probe

Gibberish download may save Voyager 1 deep space probe
Artist's concept of Voyager 1
Artist's concept of Voyager 1
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Artist's concept of Voyager 1
Artist's concept of Voyager 1

NASA's Voyager 1 deep space probe may get a new lease on life thanks to an unexpected download from one of its onboard computers. After months of sending back gibberish instead of collected data, the craft may have provided a clue to its salvation.

Launched in 1977 from the Kennedy Space Cater in Florida, Voyager 1, along with its sister craft Voyager 2, are the longest-lived. active, nonpassive spacecraft in existence. They are also part of an elite fleet of five probes that are on trajectories that will take them out of the solar system, never to return.

What is also impressive about Voyager 1 is that, after its flybys of Jupiter and Saturn ending in 1980, it wasn't designed to survive much longer. However, thanks to a lot of overengineering and its nuclear power source, the probe continues to function after 47 years in the harsh conditions of deep space as it plunges into interstellar regions.

It's a remarkable achievement, but Voyager 1 is showing its age and isn't anticipated to last more than a few more years as its radio-thermal generators run down. That is, if NASA engineers manage to overcome a computer glitch that cropped up in November 2023.

The problem wasn't that Voyager 1 wasn't communicating with Earth. It was sending back gibberish. Not only was Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California not getting any useful data, it also wasn't getting any systems telemetry or confirmation that the craft was responding to commands.

The trouble was eventually tracked down to one of Voyager 1's three onboard computers. Specifically, the flight data subsystem (FDS), which packages the science and engineering data for transmission to Earth by the telemetry modulation unit.

Isolating this was a first step, but the software for the Voyager probes was written in the mid-1970s and the people responsible have long retired. Even the documentation is literally turning yellow with age. This meant a lot of relearning for the Voyager team and a lot of patience. Suspecting that the problem might be a set of corrupted code, Mission Control started sending a series of commands to Voyager 1 in hopes of bypassing the corruption.

According to NASA, on March 1, 2024, a command was sent. Because Voyager 1 is over 15 billion miles (24 billion km) from Earth, it took almost two days for a reply to return from the probe. On March 3, the team received more gibberish from a section of the FDS that wasn't like the previous gibberish.

In fact, it wasn't gibberish at all. An engineer at NASA's Deep Space Network recognised it for what it was and decoded it. By March 10, the "gibberish" turned out to be the entire FDS memory.

What this means is that NASA now has a list of the science and telemetry data that Voyager 1 was supposed to send, the FDS operating instructions, and the values of the variables in the memory that are changed due to commands or Voyager 1's status. With the cosmic Rosetta Stone, the space agency hopes that it will be able to compare the readout to previous ones before the breakdown. In this way the source of the problem can be identified and repaired.

They hope.

Source: NASA

I am completely in awe of these two probes. It is inspiring that they are still working after all this time and at this great distance.
From an engineer to engineers at NASA: yo are very, very good.
I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest these are smart people. Great work.
It seems unlikely that a computer would spontaneously start sending random data and thus 'surely' the 'gibberish' could just be accidentally 'encoded data' (due to whatever the fault is) and that it could potentially be de-coded in the same way that any coded message could be...? But I expect I'm teaching people to suck eggs, here...
One might wonder what sort of radiation spikes Voyager is subjected to outside of our solar system. If a source were bombarding the little one way ship, the telemetry sent could easily be binary frame-shifted. That was NASA's first approach - but when you can review the memory stores, you can analyze what has changed in the instruction set from bombardment, from a power spike due to bombardment corrupting the instruction set, or due to capacitor leak due to age and/or radiation bombardment. God speed Voyager!
It sounds like they had better project management than the team that crashed the recent lunar lander due to the ground safety people not remembering to turn off their safety feature before launch.
VGER is communicating to return home.
Fascinating. Good work!
They didn't recognize a core dump? That was what computers did in the 60s and 70s when they abended.

Script kiddies.
I might have known one of the people who worked on this, or at least from his last conversation with me when Carol passed away he seemed very familiar with it as well as how the computers aboard the space shuttle function. Perhaps someone has a better idea, but Fred Feigan worked for NASA for 11 years from what Carol Freshman told me. He was helping her with her computer business in New Mexico when well I went from a customer to we chatted fairly regularly.
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