Voyager 1, the most distant human-made object from Earth, is sending back a repetitive jumble of 1s and 0s that don’t make any sense.
Scientists at NASA are desperately trying to fix the glitch from 24 billion kilometers (15 billion miles) away .
The probe can still receive commands from Earth but messages to interstellar space require approximately 22.5 hours of travel.
That means it will take days before experts know if their attempts to restore the probe’s nearly 50-year-old computers have worked or not.
This isn’t the first time that Voyager 1 has sent back random readouts. In 2022, the probe started returning some of its data through a broken computer onboard, corrupting the outgoing messages.
Engineers at NASA managed to figure the problem out and fix it. But it took several months.
In this case, the glitch is coming from a disruption in communication between one of three computers onboard, called the probe’s flight data system (FDS), and one of the probe’s subsystems: the telemetry modulation unit (TMU).
This means that no science data about interstellar space is returning to Earth. What’s more, engineering data describing the health and status of the probe is also a jumbled mess.
And yes, before you ask, engineers have tried turning the FDS on and off.
A team at NASA are now pouring through decades old documents on how the probe and its computers work – extremely outdated technology that has been all but forgotten.
The mission was really never meant to last this long. Both the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, which were launched in close succession in 1977, were mainly designed to explore Jupiter and Saturn. They are now zooming further and further away from us through interstellar space.
Putting another probe in the same spot would require decades.
If Voyager 1’s outgoing data can be fixed, scientists hope it can continue until the mission’s 50th birthday.
But its days are numbered. Beyond the Oort Cloud, on the distant edges of the Kuiper Belt, both probes will inevitably fall silent as the power of their generators run out of juice.
Some people have suggested sending a final message to Voyager 1 before its communication system breaks down for good. These ‘last words’ could persist for millennia if encoded into the memory of the onboard computers.
The most recent glitch from Voyager 1 is a good reminder: We don’t have much time left to say goodbye.