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Good news from Voyager 1, which is now out past the edge of the solar system


We recently shared news of some troubles being experienced by the Voyager 1 spacecraft. The historic NASA probe launched in 1977 to explore Jupiter and Saturn. Then it just kept going. It's now out beyond the edge of the solar system in the previously unexplored space between stars. And it still regularly talks to Earth. But in mid-November, it suffered a glitch, and its messages, well, they stopped making sense. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce now has this update from the Voyager team with some good news.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: A small dedicated team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has spent the last five months trying to figure out how to help Voyager 1, which wasn't easy because everything the poor spacecraft sent back was just incoherent.

LINDA SPILKER: That's what took the time and effort, figuring out exactly what was the problem.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Linda Spilker is the Voyager mission's project scientist. She says they finally traced the glitch to a failed memory chip in one of the spacecraft's primitive computers.

SPILKER: And so that meant we had to move all of those pieces of code to a different place in the memory, and that's what we did.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But it was tricky. After all, the spacecraft is over 15 billion miles away. And its computers are so ancient that the team had no way to test that their fix would really work. Still, mission managers sent out the carefully crafted computer commands. Then they waited to receive Voyager 1's response. Spilker says everyone gathered together in a conference room early Saturday morning, nervously munching on peanuts.

SPILKER: In those couple of minutes, just before that signal was coming back - 6:41 A.M. - you could have heard a pin drop in that room.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: When the signal arrived, everything looked good, normal.

SPILKER: Everyone just broke out in cheers and smiles, and it was just a huge celebration. We were in such relief, as well. Voyager 1 was back.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Voyager 1's first messages contained information on the health and safety of its engineering systems, plus its precious antenna.

SPILKER: It looks like the spacecraft is in good shape, much like we left it back in mid-November.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Spilker says the plan now is to find some more free memory on a working chip and put in the software that will let Voyager 1 resume transmission of its science data, so that researchers will be able to follow along as the spacecraft travels through an interstellar stew of gas, dust and cosmic rays. And the team ultimately hopes to sustain Voyager 1 and its twin Voyager 2 for at least a few more years so that the Voyager mission will still be doing science on the 50th anniversary of its launch.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nell Greenfieldboyce
Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.