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NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft has technical problems

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory can fling space probes far away from Earth and land robots on Mars.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

But they can't figure out why Voyager 1 is sending home odd signals. Though to be fair, it was launched in 1977 and is now more than 14 1/2 billion miles away. Here's Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd.

SUZANNE DODD: We travel at about 35,000 miles per hour, which is slow if you want to go across the galaxy. It's not warp speed (laughter).

FADEL: She says her team is facing some big challenges to debug the corrupt data.

DODD: The technology of the computers on board is 1975 technology - very, very old, very low memory. And because of the distances, it takes all of our big antennas on the ground to get a signal back.

INSKEEP: So they're working at speeds that are slower than an old dial-up modem.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL-UP MODEM CONNECTING)

INSKEEP: (Laughter) It takes 20 hours for a command to reach Voyager and another 20 hours to get a response.

FADEL: And Dodd says a new generation of engineers is turning to ancient manuals kept in binders with hand-drawn schematics and missing parts numbers.

DODD: So it's a bit of an archaeological hunt to get the information we need on the design of the spacecraft.

FADEL: Dodd says charged particles could be to blame for the confusing readings, but a more likely diagnosis is old age.

DODD: (Laughter) It got old. It's 45 years old. So if you imagine your little clock radio still working after 45 years, it's pretty rare.

INSKEEP: Now, to be clear, this spacecraft, whatever the bugs, is still working, still collecting information about magnetic fields and solar radiation.

FADEL: And it's carrying an actual record made of gold. If anything ever finds it, it'll hear several natural sounds from Earth, like wind and thunder. And it'll hear some music, too, including Beethoven's "String Quartet No. 13" and Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode."

INSKEEP: Assuming they figure out how to use the record player. Anyway, it's billions of miles away, beyond where any human or human-made device has gone before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHNNY B. GOODE")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans, way back up in the woods among the... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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