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This Day In History : February 14

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“Pale Blue Dot” photo of Earth is taken

voyager 1 earth last photo

On Valentine's Day, 1990, 3.7 billion miles away from the sun, the Voyager 1 spacecraft takes a photograph of Earth. The picture, known as Pale Blue Dot , depicts our planet as a nearly indiscernible speck roughly the size of a pixel.

Launched on September 5, 1977, Voyagers 1 and 2 were charged with exploring the outer reaches of our solar system. It passed by Jupiter in March of 1979 and Saturn the following year. The gaps between the outer planets are so vast that it was another decade before it passed by Neptune and arrived at the spot where it was to take a series of images of the planets, known as the "Family Portrait" of our solar system.

Of the Family Portrait series, Pale Blue Dot was certainly the most memorable. The furthest image ever taken of Earth, it lent its name to popular astronomer Carl Sagan's 1994 book. Sagan, who advised the Voyager mission and had suggested the photo, wrote the following: "Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

Voyager 1's journey continues. In 1998, it became the most distant human-made object in space, and on August 25, 2012, it left the furthest reaches of the sun's magnetic field and solar winds, becoming the first man-made object in interstellar space. 

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voyager 1 earth last photo

St. Valentine beheaded

Olympic speed skater dan jansen falls after sister dies, theodore roosevelt’s wife and mother die, first trainload of oranges leaves los angeles, lillian hellman sues mary mccarthy for libel, the st. valentine’s day massacre, ussr and prc sign mutual defense treaty, sandinistas agree to free elections, patriots defeat loyalists at kettle creek.

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  • “Exploration is in our nature.” - Carl Sagan

Emily Lakdawalla & Charlene Anderson • Feb 12, 2010

Twenty years since Voyager's last view

On Sunday comes the twentieth anniversary of an iconic image from the Voyager mission: the "Pale Blue Dot" photo of Earth caught in a sunbeam, which was captured by Voyager 1 as part of a Solar System Family Portrait. This panoramic view of our planetary cradle wouldn't have happened without years of advocacy by Planetary Society founder Carl Sagan, whose vision still inspires our organization.

Nothing like it has been done since. There hasn't been the opportunity -- Voyager 1 is the last spacecraft to have departed the solar system with a functional camera. The next one to be in a similar position will be New Horizons . I asked Alan Stern whether the Pluto-bound craft will take a family portrait from its distant perspective. He told me "Absolutely! But because of the bright Sun, we have to be careful for now, so we can't do it until after Pluto. We can however (and soon will-- this summer!) look back to Jupiter and see it and the Galilean satellites from 2+ billion km away near the orbit of Uranus. It should be quite evocative." Indeed it will.

There are several retrospectives on Voyager's solar system family portrait being posted across the Internet today, including this one from JPL and this really neat story from National Public Radio , featuring an interview of Candy Hansen, who was apparently the first person to spot Earth fixed in that sunbeam. Here's one written by the Society's Charlene Anderson a few years ago, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Voyagers' launches.

by Charlene Anderson

This article is reprinted from the September/October 2002 issue of The Planetary Report.

Home. Family. This will be Voyager's enduring legacy: It has changed forever the feelings raised by those words. Through its robotic eyes we have learned to see the solar system as our home. Through its portraits of the planets we know that they are part of our family.

Apollo astronauts showed us a tiny Earth alone in the blackness of space. Now, with these images, Voyager has shown us that Earth is not really alone. Around our parent Sun orbit sibling worlds, companions as we travel through the Galaxy.

These family portraits of the Sun and planets were Voyager's final photographic assignment. Planetary Society President and Voyager Imaging Team member Carl Sagan worked for a decade to get these pictures taken. Between the two Voyager spacecraft, they returned some 67,000 images of the four outer planets and their 56 known moons. Voyager 1 had the slightly easier assignment: It encountered Jupiter in March 1979 and swung by Saturn in November 1980. Then it headed out in search of the heliopause, the edge of our Sun's sphere of magnetic influence, and where the solar wind gives way to the wind from the stars. In August 1989 Voyager 2 flew by Neptune, completing its reconnaissance mission, having visited Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1981 and Uranus in 1986. After passing Neptune, Voyager 2 joined its twin on the way to interstellar space.

The Voyagers had been launched in 1977 to take advantage of a planetary alignment that occurs only once every 176 years. The outer planets were lined up so that a spacecraft could swing from one to another, threading its way past the 4 gas giants in only 12 years. Mission planners at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory could select their paths from among many possible trajectories and targets.

For Voyager 1, they chose to send the spacecraft close by Titan's south pole to obtain close-up data on Saturn's largest moon. Titan's thick nitrogen atmosphere proved to be heavy with complex, carbon-rich organic molecules, and its surface is possibly dotted with lakes of liquid hydrocarbons. For carbon-based lifeforms living in a primarily nitrogen atmosphere - such as ourselves - a world like Titan is well worth a close look.

But to fly close to Titan, the project team had to sacrifice Voyager 1's encounters with Uranus and Neptune or a close-up look at Pluto. Its path around Saturn swung the spacecraft up and out of the ecliptic, the plane defined by Earth's orbit about the Sun. Looking from its Pasadena home on Earth's northern hemisphere, the spacecraft now appears to be coasting above our solar system.

Voyager 1 was chosen to take the family portrait because fewer instruments might be damaged by looking back toward the Sun. And, to Voyager 2, now beyond Neptune and traveling much closer to the ecliptic, Jupiter was too close to the Sun to be picked up by the spacecraft's cameras.

So on February 14 - Valentine's Day 1990 - Voyager 1 aimed its cameras at a string of small colored dots clustered just to the right of the constellation Orion - the Hunter. The spacecraft was then 32 degrees above the ecliptic and nearly 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) from the Sun. It took 39 wide-angle views and 21 narrow-angle images. The narrow-angle camera, with a lens resembling a telephoto, took three consecutive images through colored filters of seven of the nine planets. This enabled image processors at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to construct the colored portraits of the planets seen on pages 16 and 17. The Multi-Mission Image Processing Laboratory then pasted together the wide-angle images into the mosaic on the next page.

Voyager had produced the first portrait ever of our Sun and planets together.

But like shy family members at a holiday gathering, the smallest planets avoided having their pictures taken. Mars and Mercury were lost in the glare of the Sun. The outermost planet, Pluto, was too tiny and far away. So this family portrait is incomplete. The next generation of spacecraft will be unable to take another family portrait. Magellan and Galileo, and the planned missions, such as the Soviets' Mars '94 and NASA's Mars Observer and Comet Rendezvous/Asteroid Flyby, plus the joint NASA/European Space Agency Cassini mission, will be locked in orbit about their target planets. None of these will ever gain a perspective from which they could see the solar system as Voyager did.

Voyager alone could look homeward and capture our family of planets as they looked on February 15, 1990. Voyager alone could so graphically show us how Earth and the planets are inextricably linked to our parent Sun.

Home is now a corner of space brightened by a small yellow star. Family is now a company of planets circling that star together. Our home and family now encompass an entire solar system.

Thank you, Voyager.

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NASA’s Voyager 1 Resumes Sending Engineering Updates to Earth

Voyager

NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft is depicted in this artist’s concept traveling through interstellar space, or the space between stars, which it entered in 2012.

After some inventive sleuthing, the mission team can — for the first time in five months — check the health and status of the most distant human-made object in existence.

For the first time since November , NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft is returning usable data about the health and status of its onboard engineering systems. The next step is to enable the spacecraft to begin returning science data again. The probe and its twin, Voyager 2, are the only spacecraft to ever fly in interstellar space (the space between stars).

Voyager 1 stopped sending readable science and engineering data back to Earth on Nov. 14, 2023, even though mission controllers could tell the spacecraft was still receiving their commands and otherwise operating normally. In March, the Voyager engineering team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California confirmed that the issue was tied to one of the spacecraft’s three onboard computers, called the flight data subsystem (FDS). The FDS is responsible for packaging the science and engineering data before it’s sent to Earth.

After receiving data about the health and status of Voyager 1 for the first time in five months, members of the Voyager flight team celebrate in a conference room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on April 20.

After receiving data about the health and status of Voyager 1 for the first time in five months, members of the Voyager flight team celebrate in a conference room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on April 20.

The team discovered that a single chip responsible for storing a portion of the FDS memory — including some of the FDS computer’s software code — isn’t working. The loss of that code rendered the science and engineering data unusable. Unable to repair the chip, the team decided to place the affected code elsewhere in the FDS memory. But no single location is large enough to hold the section of code in its entirety.

So they devised a plan to divide the affected code into sections and store those sections in different places in the FDS. To make this plan work, they also needed to adjust those code sections to ensure, for example, that they all still function as a whole. Any references to the location of that code in other parts of the FDS memory needed to be updated as well.

The team started by singling out the code responsible for packaging the spacecraft’s engineering data. They sent it to its new location in the FDS memory on April 18. A radio signal takes about 22 ½ hours to reach Voyager 1, which is over 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) from Earth, and another 22 ½ hours for a signal to come back to Earth. When the mission flight team heard back from the spacecraft on April 20, they saw that the modification worked: For the first time in five months, they have been able to check the health and status of the spacecraft.

Get the Latest News from the Final Frontier

During the coming weeks, the team will relocate and adjust the other affected portions of the FDS software. These include the portions that will start returning science data.

Voyager 2 continues to operate normally. Launched over 46 years ago , the twin Voyager spacecraft are the longest-running and most distant spacecraft in history. Before the start of their interstellar exploration, both probes flew by Saturn and Jupiter, and Voyager 2 flew by Uranus and Neptune.

Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.

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Voyager 1: Facts about Earth's farthest spacecraft

Voyager 1 continues to explore the cosmos along with its twin probe, Voyager 2.

Artist's illustration of Voyager 1 probe looking back at the solar system from a great distance.

The Grand Tour

Voyager 1 jupiter flyby, voyager 1 visits saturn and its moons, voyager 1 enters interstellar space, voyager 1's interstellar adventures, additional resources.

Voyager 1 is the first spacecraft to travel beyond the solar system and reach interstellar space . 

The probe launched on Sept. 5, 1977 — about two weeks after its twin Voyager 2 — and as of August 2022 is approximately 14.6 billion miles (23.5 billion kilometers) away from our planet, making it Earth 's farthest spacecraft. Voyager 1 is currently zipping through space at around 38,000 mph (17 kilometers per second), according to NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory .

When Voyager 1 launched a mission to explore the outer planets in our solar system nobody knew how important the probe would still be 45 years later The probe has remained operational long past expectations and continues to send information about its journeys back to Earth. 

Related: Celebrate 45 years of Voyager with these amazing images of our solar system (gallery)

Elizabeth Howell headshot

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for  Space.com  for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. 

Size: Voyager 1's body is about the size of a subcompact car. The boom for its magnetometer instrument extends 42.7 feet (13 meters). Weight (at launch): 1,797 pounds (815 kilograms). Launch date: Sept. 5, 1977

Jupiter flyby date: March 5, 1979

Saturn flyby date: Nov. 12, 1980.

Entered interstellar space: Aug. 25, 2012. 

The spacecraft entered interstellar space in August 2012, almost 35 years after its voyage began. The discovery wasn't made official until 2013, however, when scientists had time to review the data sent back from Voyager 1.

Voyager 1 was the second of the twin spacecraft to launch, but it was the first to race by Jupiter and Saturn . The images Voyager 1 sent back have been used in schoolbooks and by many media outlets for a generation. The spacecraft also carries a special record — The Golden Record — that's designed to carry voices and music from Earth out into the cosmos. 

According to NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) , Voyager 1 has enough fuel to keep its instruments running until at least 2025. By then, the spacecraft will be approximately 13.8 billion miles (22.1 billion kilometers) away from the sun.  

The Voyager missions took advantage of a special alignment of the outer planets that happens just once every 176 years. This alignment allows spacecraft to gravitationally "slingshot" from one planet to the next, making the most efficient use of their limited fuel.

NASA originally planned to send two spacecraft past Jupiter, Saturn and Pluto and two other probes past Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune . Budgetary reasons forced the agency to scale back its plans, but NASA still got a lot out of the two Voyagers it launched.

Voyager 2 flew past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune , while Voyager 1 focused on Jupiter and Saturn.

Recognizing that the Voyagers would eventually fly to interstellar space, NASA authorized the production of two Golden Records to be placed on board the spacecraft. Sounds ranging from whale calls to the music of Chuck Berry were placed on board, as well as spoken greetings in 55 languages. 

The 12-inch-wide (30 centimeters), gold-plated copper disks also included pictorials showing how to operate them and the position of the sun among nearby pulsars (a type of fast-spinning stellar corpse known as a neutron star ), in case extraterrestrials someday stumbled onto the spacecraft and wondered where they came from.

Both spacecraft are powered by three radioisotope thermoelectric generators , devices that convert the heat released by the radioactive decay of plutonium to electricity. Both probes were outfitted with 10 scientific instruments, including a two-camera imaging system, multiple spectrometers, a magnetometer and gear that detects low-energy charged particles and high-energy cosmic rays . Mission team members have also used the Voyagers' communications system to help them study planets and moons, bringing the total number of scientific investigations on each craft to 11.

Voyager 1 almost didn't get off the ground at its launch , as its rocket came within 3.5 seconds of running out of fuel on Sept. 5, 1977.

But the probe made it safely to space and raced past its twin after launch, getting beyond the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter before Voyager 2 did. Voyager 1's first pictures of Jupiter beamed back to Earth in April 1978, when the probe was 165 million miles (266 million kilometers) from home.

According to NASA , each voyager probe has about 3 million times less memory than a mobile phone and transmits data approximately 38,000 times slower than a 5g internet connection.  

To NASA's surprise, in March 1979 Voyager 1 spotted a thin ring circling the giant planet. It found two new moons as well — Thebe and Metis. Additionally, Voyager 1 sent back detailed pictures of Jupiter's big Galilean moons ( Io , Europa , Ganymede and Callisto ) as well as Amalthea .

Like the Pioneer spacecraft before it , Voyager's look at Jupiter's moons revealed them to be active worlds of their own. And Voyager 1 made some intriguing discoveries about these natural satellites. For example, Io's many volcanoes and mottled yellow-brown-orange surface showed that, like planets, moons can have active interiors.

Additionally, Voyager 1 sent back photos of Europa showing a relatively smooth surface broken up by lines, hinting at ice and maybe even an ocean underneath. (Subsequent observations and analyses have revealed that Europa likely harbors a huge subsurface ocean of liquid water, which may even be able to support Earth-like life .)

Voyager 1's closest approach to Jupiter was on March 5, 1979, when it came within 174,000 miles (280,000 km) of the turbulent cloud tops. Then it was time for the probe to aim for Saturn.

Scientists only had to wait about a year, until 1980, to get close-up pictures of Saturn. Like Jupiter, the ringed planet turned out to be full of surprises.

One of Voyager 1's targets was the F ring, a thin structure discovered only the year previously by NASA's Pioneer 11 probe. Voyager's higher-resolution camera spotted two new moons, Prometheus and Pandora, whose orbits keep the icy material in the F ring in a defined orbit. It also discovered Atlas and a new ring, the G ring, and took images of several other Saturn moons.

One puzzle for astronomers was Titan , the second-largest moon in the solar system (after Jupiter's Ganymede). Close-up pictures of Titan showed nothing but orange haze, leading to years of speculation about what it was like underneath. It wouldn't be until the mid-2000s that humanity would find out, thanks to photos snapped from beneath the haze by the European Space Agency's Huygens atmospheric probe .

The Saturn encounter marked the end of Voyager 1's primary mission. The focus then shifted to tracking the 1,590-pound (720 kg) craft as it sped toward interstellar space.

Two decades before it notched that milestone, however, Voyager 1 took one of the most iconic photos in spaceflight history. On Feb. 14, 1990, the probe turned back toward Earth and snapped an image of its home planet from 3.7 billion miles (6 billion km) away. The photo shows Earth as a tiny dot suspended in a ray of sunlight. 

Voyager 1 took dozens of other photos that day, capturing five other planets and the sun in a multi-image "solar system family portrait." But the Pale Blue Dot picture stands out, reminding us that Earth is a small outpost of life in an incomprehensibly vast universe.

Voyager 1 left the heliosphere — the giant bubble of charged particles that the sun blows around itself — in August 2012, popping free into interstellar space. The discovery was made public in a study published in the journal Science the following year.

The results came to light after a powerful solar eruption was recorded by Voyager 1's plasma wave instrument between April 9 and May 22, 2013. The eruption caused electrons near Voyager 1 to vibrate. From the oscillations, researchers discovered that Voyager 1's surroundings had a higher density than what is found just inside the heliosphere.

It seems contradictory that electron density is higher in interstellar space than it is in the sun's neighborhood. But researchers explained that, at the edge of the heliosphere, the electron density is dramatically low compared with locations near Earth. 

Researchers then backtracked through Voyager 1's data and nailed down the official departure date to Aug. 25, 2012. The date was fixed not only by the electron oscillations but also by the spacecraft's measurements of charged solar particles. 

On that fateful day — which was the same day that Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong died — the probe saw a 1,000-fold drop in these particles and a 9% increase in galactic cosmic rays that come from outside the solar system . At that point, Voyager 1 was 11.25 billion miles (18.11 billion km) from the sun, or about 121 astronomical units (AU).

One AU is the average Earth-sun distance — about 93 million miles (150 million km).

You can keep tabs on the Voyager 1's current distance and mission status on this NASA website .

Since flying into interstellar space, Voyager 1 has sent back a variety of valuable information about conditions in this zone of the universe . Its discoveries include showing that cosmic radiation out there is very intense, and demonstrating how charged particles from the sun interact with those emitted by other stars , mission project scientist Ed Stone, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, told Space.com in September 2017 .

The spacecraft's capabilities continue to astound engineers. In December 2017, for example, NASA announced that Voyager 1 successfully used its backup thrusters to orient itself to "talk" with Earth . The trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters hadn't been used since November 1980, during Voyager 1's flyby of Saturn. Since then, the spacecraft had primarily used its standard attitude-control thrusters to swing the spacecraft in the right orientation to communicate with Earth. 

As the performance of the attitude-control thrusters began to deteriorate, however, NASA decided to test the TCM thrusters — an idea that could extend Voyager 1's operational life. That test ultimately succeeded. 

"With these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years without use, we will be able to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years," Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd, of NASA's Jet Propulsion, Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, said in a statement in December 2017 .

Mission team members have taken other measures to extend Voyager 1's life as well. For example, they turned off the spacecraft's cameras shortly after the Pale Blue Dot photo was taken to help conserve Voyager 1's limited power supply. (The cameras wouldn't pick up much in the darkness of deep space anyway.) Over the years, the mission team has turned off five other scientific instruments as well, leaving Voyager 1 with four that are still functioning — the Cosmic Ray Subsystem, the Low-Energy Charged Particles instrument, the Magnetometer and the Plasma Wave Subsystem. (Similar measures have been taken with Voyager 2, which currently has five operational instruments .)

The Voyager spacecraft each celebrated 45 years in space in 2022, a monumental milestone for the twin probes.

"Over the last 45 years, the Voyager missions have been integral in providing this knowledge and have helped change our understanding of the sun and its influence in ways no other spacecraft can," says Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a NASA statement .

"Today, as both Voyagers explore interstellar space, they are providing humanity with observations of uncharted territory," said Linda Spilker, Voyager's deputy project scientist at JPL in the same NASA statement.

"This is the first time we've been able to directly study how a star, our Sun, interacts with the particles and magnetic fields outside our heliosphere, helping scientists understand the local neighborhood between the stars, upending some of the theories about this region, and providing key information for future missions." Spilker continues.

Voyager 1's next big encounter will take place in 40,000 years when the probe comes within 1.7 light-years of the star AC +79 3888. (The star is roughly 17.5 light-years from Earth.) However, Voyager 1's falling power supply means it will probably stop collecting scientific data around 2025.

You can learn much more about both Voyagers' design, scientific instruments and mission goals at JPL's Voyager site . NASA has lots of in-depth information about the Pale Blue Dot photo, including Carl Sagan's large role in making it happen, here . And if you're interested in the Golden Record, check out this detailed New Yorker piece by Timothy Ferris, who produced the historic artifact.  Explore the history of Voyager with this interactive timeline courtesy of NASA.  

Bibliography

  • Bell, Jim. " The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission ," Dutton, 2015.
  • Landau, Elizabeth. "The Voyagers in popular culture," Dec. 1, 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/the-voyagers-in-popular-culture
  • PBS, "Voyager: A history in photos." https://www.pbs.org/the-farthest/mission/voyager-history-photos/

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Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, " Why Am I Taller ?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace

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22.5 light hours —

Recoding voyager 1—nasa’s interstellar explorer is finally making sense again, "we're pretty much seeing everything we had hoped for, and that's always good news.”.

Stephen Clark - Apr 23, 2024 5:56 pm UTC

Engineers have partially restored a 1970s-era computer on NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft after five months of long-distance troubleshooting, building confidence that humanity's first interstellar probe can eventually resume normal operations.

Several dozen scientists and engineers gathered Saturday in a conference room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or connected virtually, to wait for a new signal from Voyager 1. The ground team sent a command up to Voyager 1 on Thursday to recode part of the memory of the spacecraft's Flight Data Subsystem (FDS) , one of the probe's three computers.

“In the minutes leading up to when we were going to see a signal, you could have heard a pin drop in the room," said Linda Spilker, project scientist for NASA's two Voyager spacecraft at JPL. "It was quiet. People were looking very serious. They were looking at their computer screens. Each of the subsystem (engineers) had pages up that they were looking at, to watch as they would be populated."

Finally, a breakthrough

Launched nearly 47 years ago, Voyager 1 is flying on an outbound trajectory more than 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) from Earth, and it takes 22-and-a-half hours for a radio signal to cover that distance at the speed of light. This means it takes nearly two days for engineers to uplink a command to Voyager 1 and get a response.

In November, Voyager 1 suddenly stopped transmitting its usual stream of data containing information about the spacecraft's health and measurements from its scientific instruments. Instead, the spacecraft's data stream was entirely unintelligible. Because the telemetry was unreadable, experts on the ground could not easily tell what went wrong. They hypothesized the source of the problem might be in the memory bank of the FDS.

There was a breakthrough last month when engineers sent up a novel command to "poke" Voyager 1's FDS to send back a readout of its memory. This readout allowed engineers to pinpoint the location of the problem in the FDS memory . The FDS is responsible for packaging engineering and scientific data for transmission to Earth.

After a few weeks, NASA was ready to uplink a solution to get the FDS to resume packing engineering data. This data stream includes information on the status of the spacecraft—things like power levels and temperature measurements. This command went up to Voyager 1 through one of NASA's large Deep Space Network antennas Thursday.

Then, the wait for a response. Spilker, who started working on Voyager right out of college in 1977, was in the room when Voyager 1's signal reached Earth Saturday.

"When the time came to get the signal, we could clearly see all of a sudden, boom, we had data, and there were tears and smiles and high fives," she told Ars. "Everyone was very happy and very excited to see that, hey, we're back in communication again with Voyager 1. We're going to see the status of the spacecraft, the health of the spacecraft, for the first time in five months."

Voyager 1's team celebrates the arrival of a radio signal from the spacecraft Saturday.

Throughout the five months of troubleshooting, Voyager's ground team continued to receive signals indicating the spacecraft was still alive. But until Saturday, they lacked insight into specific details about the status of Voyager 1.

“It’s pretty much just the way we left it," Spilker said. "We're still in the initial phases of analyzing all of the channels and looking at their trends. Some of the temperatures went down a little bit with this period of time that's gone on, but we're pretty much seeing everything we had hoped for. And that's always good news.”

Relocating code

Through their investigation, Voyager's ground team discovered a single chip responsible for storing a portion of the FDS memory stopped working, probably due to either a cosmic ray hit or a failure of aging hardware. This affected some of the computer's software code.

"That took out a section of memory," Spilker said. "What they have to do is relocate that code into a different portion of the memory, and then make sure that anything that uses those codes, those subroutines, know to go to the new location of memory, for access and to run it."

Only about 3 percent of the FDS memory was corrupted by the bad chip, so engineers needed to transplant that code into another part of the memory bank. But no single location is large enough to hold the section of code in its entirety, NASA said.

So the Voyager team divided the code into sections for storage in different places in the FDS. This wasn't just a copy-and-paste job. Engineers needed to modify some of the code to make sure it will all work together. "Any references to the location of that code in other parts of the FDS memory needed to be updated as well," NASA said in a statement.

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Inside NASA's 5-month fight to save the Voyager 1 mission in interstellar space

Artist's concept depicts NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft entering interstellar space.

After working for five months to re-establish communication with the farthest-flung human-made object in existence, NASA announced this week that the Voyager 1 probe had finally phoned home.

For the engineers and scientists who work on NASA’s longest-operating mission in space, it was a moment of joy and intense relief.

“That Saturday morning, we all came in, we’re sitting around boxes of doughnuts and waiting for the data to come back from Voyager,” said Linda Spilker, the project scientist for the Voyager 1 mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We knew exactly what time it was going to happen, and it got really quiet and everybody just sat there and they’re looking at the screen.”

When at long last the spacecraft returned the agency’s call, Spilker said the room erupted in celebration.

“There were cheers, people raising their hands,” she said. “And a sense of relief, too — that OK, after all this hard work and going from barely being able to have a signal coming from Voyager to being in communication again, that was a tremendous relief and a great feeling.”

Members of the Voyager flight team celebrate in a conference room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on April 20.

The problem with Voyager 1 was first detected in November . At the time, NASA said it was still in contact with the spacecraft and could see that it was receiving signals from Earth. But what was being relayed back to mission controllers — including science data and information about the health of the probe and its various systems — was garbled and unreadable.

That kicked off a monthslong push to identify what had gone wrong and try to save the Voyager 1 mission.

Spilker said she and her colleagues stayed hopeful and optimistic, but the team faced enormous challenges. For one, engineers were trying to troubleshoot a spacecraft traveling in interstellar space , more than 15 billion miles away — the ultimate long-distance call.

“With Voyager 1, it takes 22 1/2 hours to get the signal up and 22 1/2 hours to get the signal back, so we’d get the commands ready, send them up, and then like two days later, you’d get the answer if it had worked or not,” Spilker said.

A Titan/Centaur-6 launch vehicle carries NASA's Voyager 1 at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 5, 1977.

The team eventually determined that the issue stemmed from one of the spacecraft’s three onboard computers. Spilker said a hardware failure, perhaps as a result of age or because it was hit by radiation, likely messed up a small section of code in the memory of the computer. The glitch meant Voyager 1 was unable to send coherent updates about its health and science observations.

NASA engineers determined that they would not be able to repair the chip where the mangled software is stored. And the bad code was also too large for Voyager 1's computer to store both it and any newly uploaded instructions. Because the technology aboard Voyager 1 dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, the computer’s memory pales in comparison to any modern smartphone. Spilker said it’s roughly equivalent to the amount of memory in an electronic car key.

The team found a workaround, however: They could divide up the code into smaller parts and store them in different areas of the computer’s memory. Then, they could reprogram the section that needed fixing while ensuring that the entire system still worked cohesively.

That was a feat, because the longevity of the Voyager mission means there are no working test beds or simulators here on Earth to test the new bits of code before they are sent to the spacecraft.

“There were three different people looking through line by line of the patch of the code we were going to send up, looking for anything that they had missed,” Spilker said. “And so it was sort of an eyes-only check of the software that we sent up.”

The hard work paid off.

NASA reported the happy development Monday, writing in a post on X : “Sounding a little more like yourself, #Voyager1.” The spacecraft’s own social media account responded , saying, “Hi, it’s me.”

So far, the team has determined that Voyager 1 is healthy and operating normally. Spilker said the probe’s scientific instruments are on and appear to be working, but it will take some time for Voyager 1 to resume sending back science data.

Voyager 1 and its twin, the Voyager 2 probe, each launched in 1977 on missions to study the outer solar system. As it sped through the cosmos, Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter and Saturn, studying the planets’ moons up close and snapping images along the way.

Voyager 2, which is 12.6 billion miles away, had close encounters with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and continues to operate as normal.

In 2012, Voyager 1 ventured beyond the solar system , becoming the first human-made object to enter interstellar space, or the space between stars. Voyager 2 followed suit in 2018.

Spilker, who first began working on the Voyager missions when she graduated college in 1977, said the missions could last into the 2030s. Eventually, though, the probes will run out of power or their components will simply be too old to continue operating.

Spilker said it will be tough to finally close out the missions someday, but Voyager 1 and 2 will live on as “our silent ambassadors.”

Both probes carry time capsules with them — messages on gold-plated copper disks that are collectively known as The Golden Record . The disks contain images and sounds that represent life on Earth and humanity’s culture, including snippets of music, animal sounds, laughter and recorded greetings in different languages. The idea is for the probes to carry the messages until they are possibly found by spacefarers in the distant future.

“Maybe in 40,000 years or so, they will be getting relatively close to another star,” Spilker said, “and they could be found at that point.”

voyager 1 earth last photo

Denise Chow is a reporter for NBC News Science focused on general science and climate change.

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Nasa depiction of Voyager 1 operating in space

Voyager 1 transmitting data again after Nasa remotely fixes 46-year-old probe

Engineers spent months working to repair link with Earth’s most distant spacecraft, says space agency

Earth’s most distant spacecraft, Voyager 1, has started communicating properly again with Nasa after engineers worked for months to remotely fix the 46-year-old probe.

Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which makes and operates the agency’s robotic spacecraft, said in December that the probe – more than 15bn miles (24bn kilometres) away – was sending gibberish code back to Earth.

In an update released on Monday , JPL announced the mission team had managed “after some inventive sleuthing” to receive usable data about the health and status of Voyager 1’s engineering systems. “The next step is to enable the spacecraft to begin returning science data again,” JPL said. Despite the fault, Voyager 1 had operated normally throughout, it added.

Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 was designed with the primary goal of conducting close-up studies of Jupiter and Saturn in a five-year mission. However, its journey continued and the spacecraft is now approaching a half-century in operation.

Voyager 1 crossed into interstellar space in August 2012, making it the first human-made object to venture out of the solar system. It is currently travelling at 37,800mph (60,821km/h).

Hi, it's me. - V1 https://t.co/jgGFBfxIOe — NASA Voyager (@NASAVoyager) April 22, 2024

The recent problem was related to one of the spacecraft’s three onboard computers, which are responsible for packaging the science and engineering data before it is sent to Earth. Unable to repair a broken chip, the JPL team decided to move the corrupted code elsewhere, a tricky job considering the old technology.

The computers on Voyager 1 and its sister probe, Voyager 2, have less than 70 kilobytes of memory in total – the equivalent of a low-resolution computer image. They use old-fashioned digital tape to record data.

The fix was transmitted from Earth on 18 April but it took two days to assess if it had been successful as a radio signal takes about 22 and a half hours to reach Voyager 1 and another 22 and a half hours for a response to come back to Earth. “When the mission flight team heard back from the spacecraft on 20 April, they saw that the modification worked,” JPL said.

Alongside its announcement, JPL posted a photo of members of the Voyager flight team cheering and clapping in a conference room after receiving usable data again, with laptops, notebooks and doughnuts on the table in front of them.

The Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who flew two space shuttle missions and acted as commander of the International Space Station, compared the JPL mission to long-distance maintenance on a vintage car.

“Imagine a computer chip fails in your 1977 vehicle. Now imagine it’s in interstellar space, 15bn miles away,” Hadfield wrote on X . “Nasa’s Voyager probe just got fixed by this team of brilliant software mechanics.

Voyager 1 and 2 have made numerous scientific discoveries , including taking detailed recordings of Saturn and revealing that Jupiter also has rings, as well as active volcanism on one of its moons, Io. The probes later discovered 23 new moons around the outer planets.

As their trajectory takes them so far from the sun, the Voyager probes are unable to use solar panels, instead converting the heat produced from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium into electricity to power the spacecraft’s systems.

Nasa hopes to continue to collect data from the two Voyager spacecraft for several more years but engineers expect the probes will be too far out of range to communicate in about a decade, depending on how much power they can generate. Voyager 2 is slightly behind its twin and is moving slightly slower.

In roughly 40,000 years, the probes will pass relatively close, in astronomical terms, to two stars. Voyager 1 will come within 1.7 light years of a star in the constellation Ursa Minor, while Voyager 2 will come within a similar distance of a star called Ross 248 in the constellation of Andromeda.

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NASA hears from Voyager 1, the most distant spacecraft from Earth, after months of quiet

Launched in 1977 to study Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 1 has been exploring interstellar space – the space between star systems – since 2012.

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NASA-Voyager

An illustration of Voyager 1. NASA via AP

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA has finally heard back from Voyager 1 again in a way that makes sense.

The most distant spacecraft from Earth stopped sending back understandable data last November. Flight controllers traced the blank communication to a bad computer chip and rearranged the spacecraft’s coding to work around the trouble.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California declared success after receiving good engineering updates late last week. The team is still working to restore transmission of the science data.

It takes 22 1/2 hours to send a signal to Voyager 1, more than 15 billion miles away in interstellar space. The signal travel time is double that for a round trip.

Contact was never lost, rather it was like making a phone call where you can’t hear the person on the other end, a JPL spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Launched in 1977 to study Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 1 has been exploring interstellar space – the space between star systems – since 2012. Its twin, Voyager 2, is 12.6 billion miles away and still working fine.

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NASA Hears From Voyager 1, the Most Distant Spacecraft From Earth, After Months of Quiet

NASA has finally heard back from Voyager 1 in a way that makes sense

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This illustration provided by NASA depicts Voyager 1. The most distant spacecraft from Earth stopped sending back understandable data in November 2023. Flight controllers traced the blank communication to a bad computer chip and rearranged the spacecraft’s coding to work around the trouble. In mid-April 2024, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory declared success after receiving good engineering updates. The team is still working to restore transmission of the science data. (NASA via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA has finally heard back from Voyager 1 again in a way that makes sense.

The most distant spacecraft from Earth stopped sending back understandable data last November. Flight controllers traced the blank communication to a bad computer chip and rearranged the spacecraft’s coding to work around the trouble.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California declared success after receiving good engineering updates late last week. The team is still working to restore transmission of the science data.

It takes 22 1/2 hours to send a signal to Voyager 1, more than 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) away in interstellar space. The signal travel time is double that for a round trip.

Contact was never lost, rather it was like making a phone call where you can’t hear the person on the other end, a JPL spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Launched in 1977 to study Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 1 has been exploring interstellar space — the space between star systems — since 2012. Its twin, Voyager 2, is 12.6 billion miles (20 billion kilometers) away and still working fine.

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NASA hears from Voyager 1, the most distant spacecraft from Earth, after months of quiet

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA has finally heard back from Voyager 1 again in a way that makes sense.

The most distant spacecraft from Earth stopped sending back understandable data last November. Flight controllers traced the blank communication to a bad computer chip and rearranged the spacecraft’s coding to work around the trouble.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California declared success after receiving good engineering updates late last week. The team is still working to restore transmission of the science data.

It takes 22 1/2 hours to send a signal to Voyager 1, more than 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) away in interstellar space. The signal travel time is double that for a round trip.

Contact was never lost, rather it was like making a phone call where you can’t hear the person on the other end, a JPL spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Launched in 1977 to study Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 1 has been exploring interstellar space — the space between star systems — since 2012. Its twin, Voyager 2, is 12.6 billion miles (20 billion kilometers) away and still working fine.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

This illustration provided by NASA depicts Voyager 1. The most distant spacecraft from Earth stopped sending back understandable data in November 2023. Flight controllers traced the blank communication to a bad computer chip and rearranged the spacecraft’s coding to work around the trouble. In mid-April 2024, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory declared success after receiving good engineering updates. The team is still working to restore transmission of the science data. (NASA via AP)

IMAGES

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  4. NASA Voyager 1 photos: Amazing images from the space probe launched in

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  5. Voyager Mission Timeline

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  6. 史上最遠からの地球「ペイル・ブルー・ドット」撮影秘話

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COMMENTS

  1. The Pale Blue Dot

    The Pale Blue Dot - Revisited. The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of Earth taken Feb. 14, 1990, by NASA's Voyager 1 at a distance of 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) from the Sun. The image inspired the title of scientist Carl Sagan's book, "Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space," in which he wrote: "Look again at that ...

  2. Pale Blue Dot at 30: Voyager 1's iconic photo of Earth from space

    Earth was one of the last things Voyager 1 saw. The probe took the Pale Blue Dot photo at 0448 GMT on Feb. 14, 1990, just 34 minutes before its cameras were shut off forever.

  3. Pale Blue Dot

    Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of Earth taken on February 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe from an unprecedented distance of approximately 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles, 40.5 AU), as part of that day's Family Portrait series of images of the Solar System.. In the photograph, Earth's apparent size is less than a pixel; the planet appears as a tiny dot against the vastness of ...

  4. 10 Things You Might Not Know About Voyager's Famous 'Pale Blue Dot' Photo

    The Voyager imaging team asked for the photo to show Earth's vulnerability — to illustrate how small, fragile and irreplaceable it is on a cosmic scale. ... "The Family Portrait of the Solar System: The last set of images taken by Voyager 1 and the fascinating story of how they came to be," 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC ...

  5. "Pale Blue Dot" photo of Earth is taken

    On Valentine's Day, 1990, 3.7 billion miles away from the sun, the Voyager 1 spacecraft takes a photograph of Earth. The picture, known as Pale Blue Dot, depicts our planet as a nearly ...

  6. Voyager

    Solar System Portrait. This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed 'Pale Blue Dot', is a part of the first ever 'portrait' of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic.

  7. 'Pale Blue Dot' Images Turn 25

    This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed "Pale Blue Dot," is a part of the first ever "portrait" of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. › Full image and caption. These six narrow-angle color images were made from the first ever "portrait" of the solar system taken by Voyager 1, which was more than 4 billion miles from Earth and ...

  8. Voyager 1's Iconic 'Pale Blue Dot' Photo Is 30 Years Old ...

    Earth appears in the original "Pale Blue Dot" as a tiny blueish-white speck of a crescent a mere 0.12 pixel in size in an image that contains 640,000 pixels. It appears afloat in a great ...

  9. Twenty years since Voyager's last view

    Twenty years since Voyager's last view. On Sunday comes the twentieth anniversary of an iconic image from the Voyager mission: the "Pale Blue Dot" photo of Earth caught in a sunbeam, which was captured by Voyager 1 as part of a Solar System Family Portrait. This panoramic view of our planetary cradle wouldn't have happened without years of ...

  10. 'Pale Blue Dot' shines anew in Carl Sagan Institute video to mark

    NASA released an updated version of the famous "Pale Blue Dot" image of Earth taken by Voyager to celebrate the photograph's 30th anniversary. ... Photos from NASA's Voyager 1 and 2 probes

  11. NASA's Voyager 1 Resumes Sending Engineering Updates to Earth

    The probe and its twin, Voyager 2, are the only spacecraft to ever fly in interstellar space (the space between stars). Voyager 1 stopped sending readable science and engineering data back to Earth on Nov. 14, 2023, even though mission controllers could tell the spacecraft was still receiving their commands and otherwise operating normally.

  12. Images taken by the Voyager Mission

    Earth: Voyager: 565x790x3: PIA00013: Crescent Earth and Moon Full Resolution: TIFF (49.07 kB) JPEG (9.171 kB) 1996-09-12: Earth: Voyager: VG ISS - Narrow Angle: 453x614x3 ... Early Voyager 1 Images of Jupiter Full Resolution: TIFF (491.5 kB) JPEG (21.78 kB) 1996-09-26: Jupiter: Voyager: Imaging Science Subsystem: 400x400x3 ...

  13. Images taken by the Voyager 1 Spacecraft

    Earth: Voyager: 565x790x3: PIA00013: Crescent Earth and Moon Full Resolution: TIFF (49.07 kB) JPEG (9.171 kB) 1996-09-12: Earth: Voyager: VG ISS - Narrow Angle: 453x614x3 ... Early Voyager 1 Images of Jupiter Full Resolution: TIFF (491.5 kB) JPEG (21.78 kB) 1996-09-26: Jupiter: Voyager: Imaging Science Subsystem: 400x400x3 ...

  14. Voyager 1: 1st portrait of Earth and moon 45 years ago today

    Here is the 1st-ever photo of the Earth and moon in a single frame. Voyager 1 took the photo on September 18, 1977, when it was 7.25 million miles (11.66 million km) from Earth.

  15. Voyager 1: Facts about Earth's farthest spacecraft

    The probe launched on Sept. 5, 1977 — about two weeks after its twin Voyager 2 — and as of August 2022 is approximately 14.6 billion miles (23.5 billion kilometers) away from our planet ...

  16. Recoding Voyager 1—NASA's interstellar explorer is finally making sense

    Launched nearly 47 years ago, Voyager 1 is flying on an outbound trajectory more than 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) from Earth, and it takes 22-and-a-half hours for a radio signal to ...

  17. Inside NASA's monthslong effort to rescue the Voyager 1 mission

    "With Voyager 1, it takes 22 1/2 hours to get the signal up and 22 1/2 hours to get the signal back, so we'd get the commands ready, send them up, and then like two days later, you'd get the ...

  18. Voyager 1 transmitting data again after Nasa remotely fixes 46-year-old

    Earth's most distant spacecraft, Voyager 1, has started communicating properly again with Nasa after engineers worked for months to remotely fix the 46-year-old probe.. Nasa's Jet Propulsion ...

  19. NASA finally hears from most distant spacecraft Voyager 1 months ...

    It takes 22 1/2 hours to send a signal to Voyager 1, more than 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometres) away in interstellar space. The signal travel time is double that for a round trip.

  20. Scientists repair NASA's Voyager 1 from billions of miles away

    NASA's Voyager 1, the first spacecraft to travel beyond our solar system, has started sending information back to Earth again after scientists managed to fix the probe from 15 billion miles away.

  21. Voyager

    Note: Because Earth moves around the Sun faster than Voyager 1 or Voyager 2 is traveling from Earth, the one-way light time between Earth and each spacecraft actually decreases at certain times of the year. Cosmic Ray Data: This meter depicts the dramatic changes in readings by Voyager's cosmic ray instrument. The instrument detected a dip in ...

  22. NASA hears from Voyager 1, the most distant spacecraft from Earth

    CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA has finally heard back from Voyager 1 again in a way that makes sense. The most distant spacecraft from Earth stopped sending back understandable data last November.

  23. NASA Hears From Voyager 1, the Most Distant Spacecraft From Earth

    Launched in 1977 to study Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 1 has been exploring interstellar space — the space between star systems — since 2012. Its twin, Voyager 2, is 12.6 billion miles (20 ...

  24. NASA hears from Voyager 1, the most distant spacecraft from Earth ...

    CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA has finally heard back from Voyager 1 again in a way that makes sense. The most distant spacecraft from Earth stopped sending back understandable data last November.