from the imagine-a-beowulf-cluster dept.
When Allan Lasser went looking for the oldest computer used by the U.S. government, he found a surprising candidate: the Voyager probes.
When I started this project, I hadn't even considered that the oldest active computer might not even be on Earth. But after my first post, I received a few tips encouraging me to look at the computers onboard Voyager.
Benjamin Levy pointed out how, "the actual computers on board are probably older than  because it takes time to design and build space probes and to certify their computers for their mission," and another tipster sent me a link to a story about the Voyager team needing to hire a new programmer with experience in FORTRAN.
I'll admit I was reluctant to pursue these computers at first, but I soon realized that it was silly to disqualify a government computer from this hunt simply because it's billions of miles away. While the hardware hasn't been upgraded since it left Earth, the software has been upgraded and maintained to meet new mission requirements. We're still in touch with these probes and they're still performing science at the edge of our solar system. Most important, these are government computers and they are both old and active.
How much computer infrastructure of today will be operable, let alone reliable in 40 years?
Voyager 1 is still alive out there, barreling into the cosmos more than 15 billion miles away. However, a computer problem has kept the mission's loyal support team in Southern California from knowing much more about the status of one of NASA's longest-lived spacecraft.
The computer glitch cropped up on November 14, and it affected Voyager 1's ability to send back telemetry data, such as measurements from the spacecraft's science instruments or basic engineering information about how the probe was doing. [...] "It would be the biggest miracle if we get it back. We certainly haven't given up," said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in an interview with Ars. "There are other things we can try. But this is, by far, the most serious since I've been project manager."
Dodd became the project manager for NASA's Voyager mission in 2010, overseeing a small cadre of engineers responsible for humanity's exploration into interstellar space. Voyager 1 is the most distant spacecraft ever, speeding away from the Sun at 38,000 mph (17 kilometers per second). [...] The latest problem with Voyager 1 lies in the probe's Flight Data Subsystem (FDS), one of three computers on the spacecraft working alongside a command-and-control central computer and another device overseeing attitude control and pointing. [...] In November, the data packages transmitted by Voyager 1 manifested a repeating pattern of ones and zeros as if it were stuck, according to NASA. Dodd said engineers at JPL have spent the better part of three months trying to diagnose the cause of the problem. She said the engineering team is "99.9 percent sure" the problem originated in the FDS, which appears to be having trouble "frame syncing" data. [...] "It's likely somewhere in the FDS memory," Dodd said. "A bit got flipped or corrupted. But without the telemetry, we can't see where that FDS memory corruption is."
[...] "We have sheets and sheets of schematics that are paper, that are all yellowed on the corners, and all signed in 1974," Dodd said. "They're pinned up on the walls and people are looking at them. That's a whole story in itself, just how to get to the information you need to be able to talk about the commanding decisions or what the problem might be." [...] "It is difficult to command Voyager," Dodd said. "We don't have any type of simulator for this. We don't have any hardware simulator. We don't have any software simulator... There's no simulator with the FDS, no hardware where we can try it on the ground first before we send it. So that makes people more cautious, and it's a balance between getting commanding right and taking risks."
[...] The spacecraft's vast distance and position in the southern sky require NASA to use the largest 230-foot (70-meter) antenna at a Deep Space Network tracking site in Australia, one of the network's most in-demand antennas.
"The data rates are very low, and this anomaly causes us not to have any telemetry," Dodd said. "We're kind of shooting in the blind a little bit because we don't know what the status of the spacecraft is completely."
Previously on SoylentNews:
Engineers Work to Fix Voyager 1 Computer - 20231215