NASA’S Voyagers, are some billions of miles
from Earth, making them the farthest human-made Objects from our planet, having made it beyond
the edges of the Solar System and out into The interstellar medium.
The voyagers are 45 years old now, having Been launched in the 1970s. Both the Voyagers 1 and 2, are no strangers
to mysterious discoveries in the depths of Interstellar space. But, in a strange turn of events, scientists
have uncovered a surprising and unexpected New mystery, about Uranus' rings, buried deep
in data that was collected from the Voyager 2 mission in 1986. Voyager 2 flew past Uranus in January, discovering
10 moons and two rings, while also becoming The first and so far only spacecraft to visit
the ice giant. One of those 2 rings, which Scientists call the zeta ring, has frustrated
astronomers ever since then. Because they Weren't able to spot it again for nearly two
decades. That is until last year. Thanks to an amateur
image processor, Ian Regan, researchers got Treated to a new image of the Uranus' ring
system, including the elusive zeta ring. Scientists originally missed the find in 1986,
because the reddish dusty ring closest to Uranus, wasn't visible in any individual image.
Regan had to combine a host of images together For the feature to appear. This is now the
most comprehensive view of the zeta ring that Exists, and scientists didn't know it was
in the Voyager data for decades. The new image, combined with the previous
two Voyager photographs, offered researchers With enough information to calculate the ring's
distance from Uranus, which is about 23,000 Miles above the planet, and to also estimate
its brightness. But, both of those values are puzzling. The
earth bound Keck Observatory in Hawai'i had Gathered the second observations of the zeta
ring in 2007. These observations showed the Ring at 25,000 miles above the planet — a
bit farther from Uranus than the Voyager 2 Observations showed. The weird thing is that the location of this
ring didn't match the Voyager images. Something had changed about this ring over
the course of 20 years. And scientists are Still not entirely sure what that was. And here’s the most unusual thing about
the entire mystery. The zeta ring didn't just slowly inch away
from the planet during the time it went unmonitored. It also registered a stronger signal in the
Keck observations than it had in Voyager 2's View. This means it got significantly brighter,
which means dust got introduced to the system,
Sometime in those 20 years.
What did that. Researchers have no idea. Many suggested that Uranus could have been
hit by a space rock that fragmented into debris And settled in the zeta ring, or that perhaps
the changing seasons could be responsible, But both are merely hypotheses.
Whatever happened had to have been so dramatic That it not just affected the rings, but also
slipped under scientists' radar. NASA is planning a major mission to travel
to the Uranus system in the coming years, But scientists won't have data from that mission
for a couple of decades. However, the James Webb Space Telescope that seems to be very
good at looking at dusty rings around planets, Might step in and provide more insight till
then. But Voyager 2 is not the only one encountering
mysteries. In May of this year, Voyager 1 started to
send home some garbled nonsense, instead of Telemetry data. NASA started working on a
remote diagnosis and fix. Now, some four months later, they are triumphant.
Voyager 1 is back online and communicating Perfectly, with ground control as if it never
happened. In fact, the fix turned out to be Relatively simple for NASA, sitting billions
of miles away from the spacecraft. But, the spacecraft has come back online with
a new mystery. In mid-May, Voyager 1’s onboard system,
responsible for keeping its high-gain antenna Pointed at Earth, known as the attitude articulation
and control system, or, A A C S, started beaming Home confusing jumbles of data, instead of
the usual reports about the spacecraft’s Health and status. From our viewpoint, it
appeared as if the spacecraft had developed Something like an electronic version of aphasia
— a condition that causes the loss of fluent Speech. “The data may appear to be randomly generated,
or does not reflect any possible state the A A C S could be in,” explained NASA in
a statement from the time. Even more baffling for engineers, Voyager
1 appeared to be in perfect condition despite The spacecraft’s bizarre status reports.
The radio signal from the ship remained strong And steady, which meant the antenna was still
pointed at Earth — and not in whatever configuration The A A C S was claiming it was in to NASA,
in the reports. Similarly, Voyager 1’s science Systems kept gathering and transmitting data
as usual, without any of the same strangeness Affecting the A A C S. And, whatever was wrong
with the A A C S, didn’t trip a fault protection System designed to put the spacecraft in safe
mode, when there’s a glitch. Thankfully, NASA engineers diagnosed the problem.
And with the diagnosis, they could employ A cure. It turned out that the A A C S had started
sending its telemetry data, via an onboard
Computer that had stopped working years ago.
The dead computer corrupted all the outgoing Data. All NASA engineers had to do was send
the command to the A A C S, to use the correct Computer to send its data home.
The next challenge will be to figure out exactly What caused the A A C S to switch computers
in the first place. NASA says the system probably Received a faulty command from another onboard
computer. While they say it is not a major concern for
Voyager 1’s well-being right now, the true Culprit will need to be found and fixed, to
prevent future weirdness. For the last decade, Voyager 1 has been cruising
in interstellar space, beyond the reach of Our Sun’s magnetic field. The field had
offered the craft a little protection from Cosmic rays, and other interstellar radiation,
much as Earth’s magnetic field offers some Protection, from high-energy particles and
radiation from the Sun. Cosmic rays are known To interfere with electronics here on Earth
— when one of those high-speed energetic Particles, strikes a computer chip, it can
cause small memory errors, which add up over Time — and it’s reasonable to expect that
to be an issue for Voyager 1’s onboard computers Too. “A mystery like this is sort of par for
the course at this stage of the Voyager mission,” Said Voyager 1 and 2 project manager, Suzanne
Dodd, in a statement dated to May. The spacecraft are both almost 45 years old,
which is far beyond what the mission planners Anticipated. We’re also in interstellar
space — a high-radiation environment that No spacecraft have flown in before.
We’ll need to wait and see what new perils Encounter Voyager next on its travels — and
what new discoveries await. For now, it remains a mystery as to what caused
the AACS to switch computers. NASA is working On it, and hopefully we will have an answer
soon, but what do I know?