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posted by Fnord666 on Sunday January 08 2017, @10:04AM   Printer-friendly
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 [1977] 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?


Original Submission

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Humanity's Most Distant Space Probe Jeopardized by Computer Glitch 14 comments

https://arstechnica.com/space/2024/02/humanitys-most-distant-space-probe-jeopardized-by-computer-glitch/

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

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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08 2017, @10:27AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08 2017, @10:27AM (#450985)

    it's not a fair question.
    The fact that today's circuits are much smaller than those used 40 years ago is directly related both to the speedup, and to their shorter lifetime.
    i certainly believe that if you look carefully at slightly slower (but modern) hardware, you can make it to survive for 40 years, yes.

    • (Score: -1, Flamebait) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08 2017, @10:47AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08 2017, @10:47AM (#450991)

      Forget about cosmic radiation, modern electronics can't even tolerate spilled liquids.

      There was an episode of Drifters in which Meg dropped her phone in the toilet, covered the phone with rice, then spilled wine into her laptop, and covered the laptop with rice.

      Wait, what am I talking about? A TV episode that aired two months ago is too recent to be seen by the old people of SN, and there are women in the show, so no SNer will ever watch it.

      Screw You, World!

      • (Score: 0, Troll) by maxwell demon on Sunday January 08 2017, @10:59AM

        by maxwell demon (1608) on Sunday January 08 2017, @10:59AM (#450995) Journal

        That aired two months ago where? You seem to be yet another American who believes America is the world.

        --
        The Tao of math: The numbers you can count are not the real numbers.
        • (Score: 0, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08 2017, @11:07AM

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08 2017, @11:07AM (#450996)

          It aired on E4 in the UK, and fuck you.

          Tell you what, here's a pirate link for you to refuse to watch because reasons.

          http://vidto.me/d43fu24oh9ri.html [vidto.me]

          drifters s04e05

        • (Score: 2, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08 2017, @11:33AM

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08 2017, @11:33AM (#450999)

          another American who believes America is the world.

          AC mentions a British TV show, AC is accused of being an American bigot, and the accuser is modded Insightful.

          Go fuck yourself.

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09 2017, @01:52AM

          by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09 2017, @01:52AM (#451279)

          Moron.

    • (Score: 4, Informative) by maxwell demon on Sunday January 08 2017, @10:56AM

      by maxwell demon (1608) on Sunday January 08 2017, @10:56AM (#450994) Journal

      It's also not a fair question for another reason: The computers on Voyager were surely built specifically to work reliably after a ling time. I'm pretty sure that shows up in the cost of building this computer. In other words, we could make computers that still work reliably in fourty years, and I guess we actually do; for example I would be surprised if the computer in a modern aircraft had to be replaced every five years. But for everyday computers, they would cost so much more that hardly anyone would buy them, especially given the fact that they likely would be tossed out before that time anyway because they no longer fulfil the requirements of modern software, lack newer hardware interfaces, etc.

      Do you know a single piece of modern commodity software that would run on a computer from 1987? Heck, even the Linux kernel would no longer work on the PCs of that time, because the lowest Intel CPU still supported is the 80486, which was released two years later. And Linux is quite exceptional in support of old processors.

      What about routers from 1987? Would you put one of them into your network today?

      --
      The Tao of math: The numbers you can count are not the real numbers.
      • (Score: 0, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08 2017, @11:40AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08 2017, @11:40AM (#451000)

        What about routers from 1987? Would you put one of them into your network today?

        Millennial hackers will never hack your IoT if your router was built before the hackers were born. Huh huh huh huh huh huh huh young people are dumb huh huh huh huh.

        • (Score: -1, Flamebait) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08 2017, @11:46AM

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08 2017, @11:46AM (#451003)

          Soylent Cunts ............ is old people!

      • (Score: 4, Informative) by Unixnut on Sunday January 08 2017, @12:14PM

        by Unixnut (5779) on Sunday January 08 2017, @12:14PM (#451008)

        > for example I would be surprised if the computer in a modern aircraft had to be replaced every five years.

        They generally are actually, although varies from 5 to 10 years (depends on how much it flies, in what conditions and operator diligence). Most of them are COTS embedded systems rather than anything specially developed from scratch.

        Planes like the Airbus have 3 machines working in quorum, so one breaking down does not cause an accident. The computers are "refreshed" every maintenance cycle of the aircraft (on airbus, I think it is max 60,000 flight hours).

      • (Score: 4, Interesting) by JoeMerchant on Sunday January 08 2017, @03:38PM

        by JoeMerchant (3937) on Sunday January 08 2017, @03:38PM (#451045)

        Would the "analog computers" powered by vacuum tubes found in 1990s MIG aircraft also count if they are still in service?

        What is a computer, anyway? My grandmother had a mechanical calculator powered by a rotating motor that she used to calculate sales tax and receipts at her shop... some of those are still around and functioning. Is it any different to compare a modern 10nm process chip to a 1980s 1000nm process chip, than to compare chips to vacuum tubes or mechanical computers?

        --
        🌻 [google.com]
      • (Score: 5, Informative) by butthurt on Sunday January 08 2017, @03:50PM

        by butthurt (6141) on Sunday January 08 2017, @03:50PM (#451051) Journal

        > [...] modern commodity software that would run on a computer from 1987?

        FreeDOS should run on all PC hardware, even the IBM PC-XT and systems with as little as 640k memory.

        -- http://wiki.freedos.org/wiki/index.php/Hardware_compatibility [freedos.org]

        NetBSD/sun2 is the port of NetBSD to the Sun Microsystems sun2 series of computers, which are based on the Motorola 68010 CPU with a Sun-designed custom MMU. Sun sold these computers as both servers and desktop workstations from the early to mid 1980's.

        -- https://wiki.netbsd.org/ports/sun2/ [netbsd.org]

        Development activity on NetBSD/vax continues at a speed depending of people's spare time. NetBSD runs on most of the common desktop systems and also on some of the more unusual older systems such as the large-scale 11/780 and 8600.

        -- https://wiki.netbsd.org/ports/vax/ [netbsd.org]

        The VAX-11/780 family is Digital's oldest VAX product, it was initially announced in 1977.

        -- https://wiki.netbsd.org/ports/vax-models/#star [netbsd.org]

        NetBSD/i386 requires at least a '486.

      • (Score: 3, Informative) by AthanasiusKircher on Sunday January 08 2017, @06:30PM

        by AthanasiusKircher (5291) on Sunday January 08 2017, @06:30PM (#451120) Journal

        But for everyday computers, they would cost so much more that hardly anyone would buy them, especially given the fact that they likely would be tossed out before that time anyway because they no longer fulfil the requirements of modern software, lack newer hardware interfaces, etc.

        While I agree with you that 40 years is an awfully long time in electronics, I think there is also an argument to be made from the opposing side, i.e., that most consumer computers today are built on the principle that they are EXPECTED to fail or become unusable in a few years, necessitating another purchase. Also, the continuous war in increasing specs isn't exactly necessary to handle 97% of what most people do with their computers. Gamers want faster computers, sure -- along with people who do a lot of video or intense graphics work and editing, etc.

        But look at what average folks do -- they don't play processor or memory intensive games: they get addicted to Candy Crush or Words With Friends or whatever the most recent BS is. Most don't do video editing on any scale (except if what you mean by "video editing" is creating a video file of their family slideshow animated with Ken Burns Effect). They check Facebook and email. They use word processors and spreadsheets at work. About the only hardware-intensive task they do on a regular basis is probably watching some videos, but a much weaker "computer" in the form of a phone or tablet is even up to those tasks today.

        And keep in mind that a lot of actual computers (not "mobile devices") are sold today for work, primarily. Does office software REALLY need that much power? We've just accepted the bloat and the eye candy and whatever, but really -- has office software in terms of core functionality actually improved that much in the past 20 (maybe even 25) years? If not, why exactly does MS Office require something like 100-1000 times the system requirements of that era?

        Of course the greatest change since 25 years ago in computing is probably the use of the web. But aside from when people are looking at DEDICATED video or image sites, they're often reading text primarily. Text that probably occupies less than 1% of the resources necessary to download and render the website. (A huge problem here, of course, is the deployment of ads.)

        Anyhow, my point here is that the typical computer "lifespan" today isn't just driven by concerns about hardware expense or requirements of "modern software." It's also driven by the fact that computer manufacturers are happy to sell you another computer in 2-3 years, software manufacturers are happy to force you to buy an upgrade (which may not run so well on an older system, even if core functionality hasn't changed much), etc. If we didn't have those driving forces, the desirable computer lifespan for consumers might not be 40 years, but it might be well over 10 years. Unfortunately, there is little reason to force the kind of optimization that designers and programmers used to deal with decades ago. If you know that most people have computers 1000 times more powerful than what they were in 1995, why try to optimize common software like Office so it could still run on such a system?

      • (Score: 2) by Bot on Sunday January 08 2017, @07:54PM

        by Bot (3902) on Sunday January 08 2017, @07:54PM (#451143) Journal

        It is also not a fair question for yet another reason:

        Microsoft cannot put its paws on it.

        Just a mere disinterested look by Microsoft on a system renders it obsolete/buggy/borked, and if they put some effort they obliterate entire corporations. Remember nokia? Do you think the devil could have put systemd in linux systems through that clearly daemonic Poettering guy and the clearly satanic red hat, without the prior approval of Bill Gates? Do you think android phones pay Microsoft for each produced unit because of undisclosed patents or as a price to pay to keep them the fuck out?

        I even feel guilty for having mentioned it, because the mere act puts v'ger in some danger.

        --
        Account abandoned.
        • (Score: 2) by Scruffy Beard 2 on Monday January 09 2017, @04:09AM

          by Scruffy Beard 2 (6030) on Monday January 09 2017, @04:09AM (#451313)

          While your point is well taken, I feel something is "off" about it.

          I think it is laying everything at Microsoft's feet. I suspect that Redhat borked Gnu/Linux without Microsoft's explicit help.

          • (Score: 2) by Bot on Wednesday January 11 2017, @12:23AM

            by Bot (3902) on Wednesday January 11 2017, @12:23AM (#452303) Journal

            Fair objection, but to interpret my thought consider that my AI models found Gates functionally equivalent to satan.

            --
            Account abandoned.
    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Aiwendil on Sunday January 08 2017, @05:12PM

      by Aiwendil (531) on Sunday January 08 2017, @05:12PM (#451083) Journal

      Just last month I had to reconfigure about a dozen computers from -96, and they are not the oldest I've met that are in service (with spares available).

      Pretty much all industrial computers are specified with an expected lifespan of at least 175_200h (20 years) (0..60c ambient temp) so I wouldn't even blink at it surviving 40yrs (at 18..24c)

      Also - considering the huge number of nuclear plants currently getting updated to digital instruments I would not be surprised if there are lots of computers about 40 years old in service (easier to just replace the busted capacitor than getting a new computer certfified)

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by VLM on Sunday January 08 2017, @01:18PM

    by VLM (445) on Sunday January 08 2017, @01:18PM (#451014)

    Have to define "active".

    Pioneer 10 is powered up and running if we had big enough antennas to hear it and its older than the voyager series. It had a 60s discrete TTL type design not a single die CPU which might disqualify it to normies.

    As a side note its well known in the 1802 community that there is 1802 propaganda for all kinds of ridiculous space probes, including ones that launched before the 1802 was invented, but the oldest spacecraft absolutely known to be run by 1802 CPUs is the 1989 launched Galileo Jupiter mission. That fad only lasted like 5 years and then everything launched used some rad hardened IBM or MIPS thing.

    Because CPU power is not much of a limiter but rad hardening is, as a product its turning into a specialty product and the days of being able to buy (as a consumer) the same chip as a spacecraft uses are pretty much over. On the other hand the days of a spacecraft having "the" computer are long gone and the ISS is full of consumer grade laptops, none of them in a mission critical system of course.

    • (Score: 2) by mhajicek on Sunday January 08 2017, @06:09PM

      by mhajicek (51) on Sunday January 08 2017, @06:09PM (#451107)

      Old battleships and the like had amazingly complex mechanical fire-control computers. What's the oldest fire-control computer still in service?

      --
      The spacelike surfaces of time foliations can have a cusp at the surface of discontinuity. - P. Hajicek
    • (Score: 2) by ese002 on Sunday January 08 2017, @08:51PM

      by ese002 (5306) on Sunday January 08 2017, @08:51PM (#451181)

      Have to define "active".

      Pioneer 10 is powered up and running if we had big enough antennas to hear it and its older than the voyager series. It had a 60s discrete TTL type design not a single die CPU which might disqualify it to normies.

      I don't see how being constructed from discrete logic chips would disqualify it. All computers were once built that way. Before that they used discrete transistors and before that vacuum tubes. As long as it can load and run programs, it is a computer in the same sense we use today. (Fixed function digital and analogue "computers" are less clearly qualified)

      The trouble with Pioneer 10 is that we just don't know. It might be running. It might not. Also in this category are Pioneers 6, 7, and 8. Pioneer 6 was last contacted in 2000. As far as anyone knows, these probes are still operating but 2000 was the last time anyone tried to contact them. I'm not finding information on their onboard "computers" so I don't know if they qualify in the modern sense, even they are still working.

      • (Score: 2) by tibman on Monday January 09 2017, @02:56PM

        by tibman (134) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 09 2017, @02:56PM (#451462)

        It could be because the CPU itself isn't a discrete unit. There isn't any part you can point to and say "This is the CPU". But i agree that it shouldn't be disqualified for that.

        --
        SN won't survive on lurkers alone. Write comments.
  • (Score: 4, Funny) by MrGuy on Sunday January 08 2017, @01:31PM

    by MrGuy (1007) on Sunday January 08 2017, @01:31PM (#451015)

    It's doing science and it's
    still alive.
    And when you're dead it will be
    still alive.

    • (Score: 2) by coolgopher on Sunday January 08 2017, @02:11PM

      by coolgopher (1157) on Sunday January 08 2017, @02:11PM (#451021)

      I don't know whether to mod Funny, Insightful, or Touche, so I'll comment instead. I love that the Voyager probes are still going. I hope some day we'll be able to overtake them and perhaps even collect them for a museum. Though then again, leaving them hurtling through the epic vastness of space is a fitting memorial and tribute to curiosity as well.

      • (Score: 3, Funny) by Knowledge Troll on Sunday January 08 2017, @03:06PM

        by Knowledge Troll (5948) on Sunday January 08 2017, @03:06PM (#451034) Homepage Journal

        This was a triumph.

        Mod +1 song or funny if that isn't an option. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6ljFaKRTrI [youtube.com]

      • (Score: 2) by theluggage on Sunday January 08 2017, @03:09PM

        by theluggage (1797) on Sunday January 08 2017, @03:09PM (#451036)

        Well, I hear that Pioneer 10 had a plaque with pictures of naked people on it!!! - you might be able to get funding to go and sort that out (tell the conservatives that you're going to paint on some underwear, and the liberals that you're going to add an intersex, non-caucasian figure and you should get two bites at the cherry...)

        Voyager just had that rather embarrassing record... someone should probably replace it with a properly DRM'd digital recording, although since vinyl seems to be coming back, you may have missed that window of opportunity.

        • (Score: 2) by butthurt on Sunday January 08 2017, @04:01PM

          by butthurt (6141) on Sunday January 08 2017, @04:01PM (#451053) Journal

          There were two of those disgusting plaques; the other was affixed to Pioneer 11.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_plaque [wikipedia.org]

        • (Score: 2, Funny) by slap on Sunday January 08 2017, @06:22PM

          by slap (5764) on Sunday January 08 2017, @06:22PM (#451116)

          I always thought that the drawings of naked humans on the spacecraft was a bad idea. Some aliens may think it is some kind of a restaurant menu......

          • (Score: 2) by theluggage on Sunday January 08 2017, @06:29PM

            by theluggage (1797) on Sunday January 08 2017, @06:29PM (#451119)

            ...warning, may contain nuts.

            • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08 2017, @08:47PM

              by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08 2017, @08:47PM (#451176)

              How about the human on the right? That's not got much nut in it.

      • (Score: 3, Insightful) by art guerrilla on Sunday January 08 2017, @05:15PM

        by art guerrilla (3082) on Sunday January 08 2017, @05:15PM (#451085)

        hell, it might have been here, but in some article or comment, a point was made in context which -hate to say it- blew my mind... not that i wasn't aware of it, just taht it was said in a form which put the feat in high contrast, it was this:
        19-aughts we just *barely* start to fly an overgrown box kite, less than 70 years later, we stupid nekkid apes are golfing on the fucking moon ! ! !
        unbelievable...

    • (Score: 2) by maxwell demon on Sunday January 08 2017, @02:51PM

      by maxwell demon (1608) on Sunday January 08 2017, @02:51PM (#451029) Journal

      The Voyager probe
      travels to space. The humans
      stay home and listen.

      --
      The Tao of math: The numbers you can count are not the real numbers.