Nasa’s Voyager-1 sends usable data from deep space

Voyager 1 is no longer spouting gibberish as the BBC announcer put it. This short interview with Dr. Jennifer Millard describes how it was done. This is the stuff of the real old school hackers who understood the elegant dance between machine language software and the actual hardware. The continuing story of the Voyager probes reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Robery Ardrey’s African Genesis, a book I discovered in high school among the Jesuits. I still have my copy and peruse it often.

“But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.”

Robert Ardrey, African Genesis

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9 Responses to Nasa’s Voyager-1 sends usable data from deep space

  1. elkern says:

    Thx; good explanation of what went wrong & how NASA fixed it (which is perhaps more accurately described as a “work-around” than a “repair”, but no less a miracle for that).

    It’s awesome that we can still communicate with this little machine, roughly the size & weight of a VW bug of similar vintage. Travelling about 500 times as fast as that VW, it’s not quite 1 Light-Day from Earth now (~160 AU); at this rate, in another 80,000 years, it will have travelled the distance between here & Alpha Centauri (though it’s not headed in that direction). Space is *big*.

    And thanks also for that wonderful quote from Robert Ardrey!

  2. Christian J Chuba says:

    I wonder if it was a RAM chip where something as simple as a reboot can detect a failure and keep it out of its memory address space. I’m very impressed that any kind of logic card can still operate in that environment for over 40yrs, just curious about the details.

    • TTG says:

      Christian J Chuba,

      I looked up what the Voyagers use for computers; a “proprietary, custom-built computers built from CMOS and TTL medium-scale CMOS integrated circuits and discrete components, mostly from the 7400 series of Texas Instruments.” They are interrupt driven chips. Brings back memories. I remember being asked what Int 13H on an 8088 chip did as a test question when joining a hacker group on a Polish FidoNet BBS… in Polish.

  3. leith says:

    Ardrey was a genius. Have you read Territorial Imperative? How does someone with a an education in philosophy and a background as a scriptwriter for Tinseltown end up upstaging his critics who had PhD’s in Anthropology?

    Are any of the films he wrote screenplays for still available?

    Hopefully Voyager 1 will live long enough to eventually broadcast Mozart and Chuck Berry to someone out there in the galaxy.

    • TTG says:


      Once he started researching for African Genesis, he threw himself into the field splitting his time in universities and with researchers like Raymond Dart and Louis B. Leakey. I only know him for his books, not his screenplays.

  4. Barbara Ann says:

    Glad they sorted out Voyager 1’s speech impediment.

    That’s a very nice passage you’ve quoted there TTG. The sentiment it expresses seems to me to encapsulate the very essence of progressivism. We should not of course forget that the technology that gets us to the stars was born out of the need for missiles – itself a result of our essential nature as armed, killer apes. Dreams of a world without murders, massacres and corpses are very dangerous. God forbid we somehow manage to bring it about, as it will surely also be a world without symphonies, poems and wonder itself – in truth, one without man. We will always be killer apes and all attempts to engineer us into angels end in disaster.

    No, our aim must be to celebrate the miracle of man in all its manifestations. The best we can hope for is that as many as possible of the murders and massacres happen on battlefields and as many of the corpses as possible are heroes. If we have sunk from anywhere, it is from this state.

  5. Christian J Chuba says:

    I see that voyager 1 is nuclear powered by plutonium decay, bringing this to a modern topic, the dreaded nuclear weapon the Russians are going to deploy in space. The speculation is that they want to have a nuke in space to create an EMP to take out all satellites in an area.

    I don’t see a rational motive for the Russians to do that but it is a sensational headline. If they really got desperate enough to use an EMP, they could easily launch an S-500 or other ballistic missile from their soil and explode it at an altitude. That would be much more artful and easy to do without having to launch multiple satellites, each with a nuclear weapon, to get the coverage they would need using that approach. Satellites are heaved into orbit with a one time throw, correct?

    I can see them launching a satellite with a nuclear reactor to power something like lasers. That seems a bit more rational and believable to me than a network of orbiting nukes (which is insane).

    • TTG says:

      Christian J Chuba,

      Russia was building a nuclear powered, interplanetary space tug years back. It looked pretty interesting. I hope they get back into that stuff.

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