Voyager-1 is sending back readable data from deep space

  • By Jonathan Amos
  • Science reporter

image caption, Artwork: Voyager 1 launched from Earth in 1977

The US space agency says its Voyager 1 probe is sending usable information back to Earth after months of fumbling.

The 46-year-old NASA spacecraft is humanity's most distant object.

A glitch in the system stopped providing readable data in November, but engineers have now fixed this.

For now, Voyager is only sending back health data about its internal systems, but more work science instruments should get online.

“Voyager-1 is providing usable data on the health and condition of its internal engineering systems,” NASA said in a statement.

“The next step is for the spacecraft to start returning science data again.”

Voyager 1 was launched from Earth in 1977 on a tour of the exoplanets, but has continued since then.

It moved beyond the bubble of gas emitted by the Sun in 2012 — a domain called the heliosphere — and is now embedded in interstellar space, which contains the gas, dust and magnetic fields of other stars.

A faulty chip has been blamed for the old spacecraft's recent woes.

This prevented Voyager's computers from accessing a key part of the software code used to package information for transmission to Earth.

For a time, the engineers understood nothing about Voyager, even though the spacecraft was still receiving their commands and otherwise operating normally.

The problem was solved by moving the affected code to different locations in the memory of the study's computers.

The pair's primary mission was to study the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – a mission they completed in 1989.

They were then directed toward deep space in the general direction of our galactic center.

Their power comes from radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) that convert the heat of plutonium decay into electricity. A continuous degradation process means that generators produce slightly less power each year.

It's uncertain how long the Voyagers will be able to continue, but engineers have come up with strategies to create a few extra years of activity.

Voyager-2 is moving slightly slower behind its twin.

It is 20 billion km (13 billion miles) from Earth.

Although both travel at 15 km/s (9 mph), they will not approach another star for tens of thousands of years.

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