Signs of life

Late last year, NASA's Voyager 1 probe, which has been traveling through space since its launch nearly 50 years ago, began sending absurd messages back to Earth, as if senility was catching up with her.

"We went from having a conversation with Voyager, with the 1s and 0s containing scientific data, to just a dial tone," Voyager project scientist Linda Spilker told Scientific American.

But now, according to NASA's latest update, the Voyager mission team has detected a sign of life - in the form of a signal that ended up being read into the memory of the old spacecraft's flight data subsystem (FDS), a board that prepares data packets to be transmitted to Earth.

The data wasn't in the proper format, but at least it was something. So while there are no guarantees, it's a hopeful sign of life that could allow Voyager 1 to continue its decades-long mission.

“It's an excellent development on Voyager,” Joe Westlake, director of NASA's heliophysics division, told SciAm.

Excellent Development

The memory contains a wealth of data about the status of Voyager 1, including “scientific or engineering data for downlink,” according to NASA.

Engineers are now comparing the data with the previous reading to find out if there are any discrepancies that could explain why the spacecraft has been acting so strangely.

But it will probably take some time to reach any conclusions.

“The team is analyzing the reading,” says the space agency’s update. “Using this information to design a potential solution and trying to put it into action will take time.”

The ancient spacecraft has seen many challenging times, from dwindling power supplies and dirty thrusters to near-fatal software glitches.

Despite the many obstacles, scientists are still trying to squeeze out every bit of life that may – or may not – remain.

"My motto for a long time has been 50 years or all," astronomer Stamatios Krimigis, who has worked on the Voyager 1 mission since the 1970s, told NPR earlier this month, "but we're getting closer to that."

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