NASA decodes a mysterious message from Voyager 1 that has remained unknown for months

As of November 2023, the Voyager 1 probe has not properly communicated with NASA. An unknown error caused the spacecraft to exhibit a ringing pattern of zeros and ones, incomprehensible and of little use to operators on Earth. Five months later, some space agency scientists are beginning to decipher the true nature of the cryptic signal.

Some of the scrambled data output to the Flight Data Subsystem (FTS), one of Voyager 1's three computers, was encrypted by a NASA Deep Space Network engineer. As discovered, a sequence of zeros and an odd number constitute a read of the entire FDS memory. This flight data subsystem memory contains its code, instructions about its primary mission, and a record of variables at its source that cause changes in the ship's behavior. NASA said They can now compare those measurements to those released by Voyager 1 before filing a bug to detect inconsistencies in the source code.

Work takes time. Communication with the probe currently takes about 45 hours due to its position at 24 billion kilometers from Earth. It takes 22.5 hours to issue a diagnosis and the same extra time to send an instruction even though waves travel at the speed of light. It will take a few more weeks for experts to fix the connection.

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Voyager's long march

Voyager 1 and its sister, Voyager 2, are both the most distant probes in the history of space travel. They left Earth in 1977 with the firm intention of exploring the outer reaches of the solar system, visiting every planet, and then embarking on a journey into interstellar space. They carry with them a golden disc containing information about humans, the location of the planet, the units of measurement used in science, and the characteristics of the Earth's atmosphere.

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This is not the first time ships have had trouble communicating with Earth. In 2023, Voyager 2 went into a quiet period after an erroneous command was sent. The anomaly caused its main antenna to turn so that it could not receive signals from NASA. To solve the problem, scientists resorted to a super-powerful transmitter to force the probe to “flip” toward the planet and receive the correct code. The confirmation process is complex for the team. It took 37 hours to see if the ship was working properly.

Voyager's quiet periods do not mean a loss of valuable information for astronomers. Calla Cofield, a spokeswoman for NASA's Jet Propulsion Institute, told WIRED: “Voyager science is not something you have to keep track of. “They're studying this part of space from long distances, so a few weeks apart won't hurt those studies.”

Conscious flight of ships is not eternal. Both have radioisotope thermoelectric generators with plutonium-238. At some point, that battery will run out and all Voyager services will cease. They will carry only the golden records containing all the relevant information about humanity as it was in 1970.

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