it would take a “miracle” to save the legendary probe – MSteka

it would take a “miracle” to save the legendary probe

On November 14, 2023, the Voyager 1 space probe suffered a malfunction that plunged it into a deep coma. Since then, it has been drifting to the ends of the cosmos in a lethargic state, unable to transmit any scientific or navigation data to Earth. Since then, NASA has done everything possible to bring it out of its torpor. But the more time passes, the darker the prognosis becomes; even if they are not yet completely resigned, those responsible are now preparing for the inevitable.

“It would be the greatest miracle if we managed to recover it,” explains Suzanne Dodd, head of the Voyager team at NASA’s famous Jet Propulsion Lab in an interview with Ars Technica. “We certainly haven’t given up; there are other things we can still try. But it is by far the most serious incident since I have been responsible for it,” she specifies.

Voyager 1 has not responded for months

During their investigation, Dodd and his colleagues were able to identify the origin of the problem: it appeared to come from the Flight Data Subsystem, one of the vehicle’s three on-board computers. It is notably designed to manage most of the data relating to navigation and orientation control. However, it is a redundant system, that is to say that it is present in two copies on board the vehicle. Unfortunately, this twin who was supposed to take over in the event of a problem has already given up a long time ago; according to Dodd, it has only been operating since 1981.

© NASA/JPL-Caltech

So only one operational FDS remained aboard Voyager 1. And unfortunately, it seems that at least one bit of its memory is corrupted. The origin of this problem is not entirely clear, but there are several possible explanations. The most obvious is that this portion of the memory was crossed by a high energy particle which would have changed the state of this binary digit from 0 to 1, or vice versa.

Bit flipupdate bug or hardware problem?

This phenomenon, called bit flip, is taken very seriously by spacecraft manufacturers, knowing that the latter are much more exposed to this problematic radiation than terrestrial vehicles. But even on Earth, designers of computer systems are beginning to be wary of it. This topic has attracted much more attention since an incident that occurred during an election in Belgium. In 2003, an extra bit was inserted for no apparent reason into the memory of an electronic voting machine, resulting in an additional 4,096 votes being awarded to a local resident. The trail of fraud having been ruled out, and in the absence of another credible trail, several specialists concluded that a particle from space had come to wreak havoc on the system.

Another possibility is that this bug is linked to the software makeover that Voyager 1 benefited from in October 2023, shortly before the glitch. NASA anticipated that this would be a risky operation. Even though this update seemed to go well, it’s not impossible that it played a role.

In any case, the team is no longer able to communicate with Voyager 1 at all. The probe just emits a continuous signal which shows that it is still technically alive. But she has stopped responding to requests and remains entirely catatonic. A bit like a human in a coma whose pulse can be taken, but who can no longer communicate.

A technological dinosaur

The problem is that it’s not going to be easy to understand all the nuances of the fault. Indeed, Voyager 1 and its sister Voyager 2 were launched in 1977; on-board computers were therefore designed more than five decades ago. Suffice to say that people who still master all the technical details are not rushing to the gate. “ I don’t want to be gloomy, but a lot of the people who designed Voyager are now deceased. », Regrets Dodd in his interview with Ars Technica.

To hope to remedy the problem, we must therefore re-appropriate all the details of the design based on extremely dated documentation, and based on techniques which are no longer at all current. A painstaking job for the handful of specialists who continue to watch over the machine. “ We have a reasonable amount of documentation, but most of it only exists in paper format, so you have to do some archaeological digging to find this information. »

More than ever, Voyager 1 is beginning to feel scorched. We suspect that bad news will eventually come in the relatively near future. As early as June 2022, NASA troops had already warned that the Voyagers were at the end of their run, since the plutonium reactors in the canonical age were beginning to fail.

Everyone knows full well that this machine has already far exceeded its life expectancy. Originally, the mission was only supposed to last… four years! “ We’re already ten times over the warranty on these damn machines », whispered physicist Ralph McNutt in 2022. A bit like Ingenuity, the formidable little Martian helicopter which left us recently after a wonderful epic journey – but on an even larger scale.

A very important epic for the collective imagination

But it is not only for this exceptional longevity that the Voyagers probes are exceptional. For example, we owe them several major discoveries on Saturn and Jupiter, the two gas giants of our solar system. But above all, they literally pushed the limits of observable space. Indeed, they have ventured further from Earth than any other human machine.

©NASA

In 1989, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to exceed Pluto’s orbit, the most distant major celestial body in our solar system. And the following year, she captured some historic photos that had a strong impact on the collective imagination. More than a billion kilometers behind the orbit of this small rock since demoted to the rank of dwarf planet, the probe took the very first “family photos” of the solar system. It was the first time that we could observe all the planets in the cosmic neighborhood on the same image.

But above all, she took a legendary shot where we see the Earth in the form of a small blue dot, lost alone in the middle of the immensity of the cosmos. This image has gone down to posterity under the name of “ Pale Blue Dot » (a pale blue dot), in reference to a line from Carl Sagan, a famous astronomer who was overwhelmed by this new perspective on our planet.

Pale blue dot
By squinting, you can spot a “pale blue dot” in the middle of a light trail; This is the Earth seen by Voyager from the edge of the solar system. © NASA / JPL-Caltech

Through these images, Voyager 1 made millions of people aware of the grandiose and terrifying immensity of our universe. And by extension, to put into perspective the status of our civilization, as exceptional as it is fragile and insignificant once it is thus condensed into a handful of pixels.

A guaranteed place in the history books

And since then, the Voyager mission has continued to make space lovers dream. Voyager 1 ended up becoming the first human invention to reach interstellar space, and as of this writing, it is sailing at 24,363,529,636 kilometers from Earth. A record that is not about to fall.

At current speed, it will still take a little over a year to reach 25 billion kilometers. But unless the “ miracle » long awaited by Dodd’s team does not arrive, she will undoubtedly still be in a coma when crossing this symbolic bar. All that remains is to wait for unexpected good news, or more reasonably, a formal death certificate for the eldest of this couple who has already reserved his place in the Pantheon of space exploration.

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