NASA JPL’s Voyager Team Is Patching Up Both Voyagers’ Firmware

It’s not every day that you get to update the firmware on a device that was produced in the 1970s, and rarely is said device well beyond the boundaries of our solar system. This is however exactly what the JPL team in charge of the Voyager 1 & 2 missions are facing, as they are in the process of sending fresh firmware patches over to these amazing feats of engineering. These patches should address not only the attitude articulation and control system (AACS) issues that interrupted Voyager 1’s communication with Earth a while ago, but also prevent the thruster propellant inlet tubes from getting clogged up as quickly.

Voyager 2 is the current testbed for these patches, just in case something should go wrong despite months of Earth-based checking, testing and validation. As Voyager 1 is the furthest from Earth, its scientific data is the more valuable, but ideally neither spacecraft should come out worse for wear after this maintenance session.

The AACS fixes are more of an insurance policy, as the original cause of the issue was found to be that the AACS had entered into an incorrect mode, yet without a clear understanding of how this could have happened. With these changes in place, recovery should be much easier. Similarly, the changes to the use of the thrusters are relatively minor, in that they will mostly let the spacecraft drift a bit more out of focus before the thrusters engage, reducing total thruster firings and thus the build-up of material in these inlet tubes.

With these changes the antennae of both spacecraft should remain trimmed firmly towards the blue planet which they left over forty-five years ago, and enable them to hopefully reach that full half century mark before those of us who are still listening have to say our final farewells.

75 thoughts on “NASA JPL’s Voyager Team Is Patching Up Both Voyagers’ Firmware

    1. To quote a line spoken by the great Peter Cushing –

      “Had man not been given to invention and experiment, then tonight, sir, you would have eaten your dinner in a cave. You would’ve strewn the bones about the floor then wiped your fingers on a coat of animal skin. In fact, your lapels do look a bit greasy. Good night.”

      1. As the guy who was the project manager for the production of the first CD-ROM produced by NASA with the images of the Jupiter flyby from this, I say how awesome that it is still there. The Images astounded the world.

    2. NASA gets less than half a percent of the US government budget.
      The American military complex gets 20 percent.

      One performs science for the betterment of mankind, the other turns people into skeletons.

      Your derision is misguided.

    3. You realise they don’t send the money to space right? They spend it on industry and jobs in the US and it’s allies. It creates jobs and improved the economy by increasing market liquidity. Would you rather they just give one of Elon’s companies another subsidy?

      1. THANK YOU for saying this! It astounds me how many people seem to think money spent on space goes NO WHERE… It goes to pay the salaries of engineers, technicians, laborers, suppliers, manufacturers… It goes to JOBS! Jobs that let regular folks earn a living, put a roof over their head, food on their plates, and hopefully live a good life! All this BOOSTING THE ECONOMY and JOB CREATION, and we get to further human knowledge and understanding! COUNT ME IN!!!

        Regarding the consumables… The fuel to actually reach space is a pittance in the total cost to everything else. If that one “waste” nets all those other jobs and manufacturing and such, and grows the scope of human knowledge, then it’s not really a waste at all!

    4. The only wasted tax dollars are from the government subsidies your local coal powerplant was just paid to offset their carbon emissions, that just became slightly less effective due to the excess CO² that you are adding to the system with all your poopy takes. Please be better.

    5. In the great words of Mr dyalen Thomas
      Do not go gentle into that good night,
      Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
      Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

      Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
      Because their words had forked no lightning they
      Do not go gentle into that good night.

      Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
      Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
      Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

      Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
      And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
      Do not go gentle into that good night.

      Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
      Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
      Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

      And you, my father, there on the sad height,
      Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
      Do not go gentle into that good night.
      Rage, rage against the dying of the light

    6. Knowledge only increases the wealth of the mind which pays us and future generations back ten fold… open your eyes ears and mind to future possibilities… reflect on where we have come from in the last 50 years… and where our destination lies

  1. Anybody have information about the computer systems design in these Voyager probes? It would be a cool remake project. Maybe some schematics or design requirements? I gotta think these exist in the public domain somewhere…

    1. Agreed. Would be cool.
      Especially the RTG. I wouldn’t mind having a couple of those in my basement.

      Lots of info at the canonical source:
      Plenty of references to the many publications the project has generated, with details of the instruments too.

      It’s really disappointing that the more modern probes present a watered-down set of information for public consumption. Compare, for example, that Voyager page with the just-launched Psyche page

      1. “It’s really disappointing that the more modern probes present a watered-down set of information”

        They’re generally in publications. Building up a nice publicly accessible website usually takes a lot of time. One of the reasons Voyager did it is because it’s such an absurdly long program that it’s *important* to condense it – they’re generational spacecraft.

        1. The generational aspect is a very fascinating one, I think.
          The Voyager program has stood the test of time and is well documented.

          It would be an interesting thought to design future deep space probes using the same technology.

          At the very least in terms of radio transmission protocols, satellite dishes and transceivers.

          Just like it’s done with PDF formats for long time storage.

          The Voyagers could be used as a reference for generational space programs.

          Not as a reference for all future probes, maybe, but for the long running ones.

          A technology well understood throughout all future human history surely has something to it.

          In deep space exploration, thinking in long periods of time surely is of relevance. The relativistic effects alone are a big consideration here. It gets increasingly harder to decipher a signal from the far.

          Anyway, it’s not about being stuck in the past all the time.
          It’s possible to combine modern and vintage technologies just fine.

          The transceiver sites on earth can be improved over time, for example, without the need to require to change the transmission format or control commands being used by long running space probes.

          I mean, in the Perry Rhoadan science fiction stories, the Lemurian star arks are generational ships using vintage technology, as well, rather than state-of-the-art technology of their time.

      2. It’s generally good for everybody that radioisotope material is not available in significant quantities. It only takes the amount of radioactive material in a few hundred smoke detectors to have the NRC confiscate your entire shed lol.

        1. AFAIK, the core “problem” of the Voyager’s RTGs isn’t exactly the type of isotope being used, but the material of the RTGs themselves. The RTGs degrade too quickly, in simple words.

          I mean, it’s not wrong to say that the isotope being used wasn’t exactly ideal for a long running mission. But the RTGs themselves are a factor, too.

          On top of that, Voyager mission has greatly outlived its original mission goals, so we can’t even rightfully complain here. Drat! 😾

        2. That reminds me of vintage pocket watches..
          They did glow in the dark, because the glowing paint included a mix of phosphor and an radio active material. The workers at the clock company, many of which were women, later on suffered from cancer. The probably because of the inhaling of radiating paint particles. Same sad story for the workers making cockpit instruments for war planes.

          1. You can look up Radium Girls for their full stories. Not only did they inhale it, but they ingested it. The paintbrushes needed to stay pointed for the tiny details in the watches. A girl would touch the brush to her tongue (and/or lip ?) to make it pointed.

        1. Yep, and several kilowatts of heat. Two sets of those would provide my house with all the heat and electricity I need, year-round. It would be about the size of two refrigerators. No problem.

          Sure, it would consume much of the entire world’s current usable Pu-238 inventory, but it’s just rotting away anyway. :-)

    2. I don’t know anything about the Voyager/Viking computer, but a while back I did an assembler, and simulator for the earlier OBP as used by the Hubble Space Telescope. There’s a deep dive into the architecture here: Also an eight-hour livecoding video, if you’re sufficiently interested…

      The information I’ve found tells me that the Voyager’s CCS uses 18-bit words, with a 12-bit address space and each instruction taking up one word. This is the same as the OBP, so I’d imagine that they’re closely related.

      One interesting thing is that the OBP and the Apollo Guidance Computer (also did a deep dive on this, here: were roughly contemporary, but the OBP is cleaner and more powerful. There’s probably an interesting story about why they didn’t use the same computer for both.

    3. (Just tried posting but my comment hasn’t appeared. I don’t _think_ there’s moderation?)

      I don’t know anything about the Voyager’s computer, but a while back I did a deep dive into the earlier OBP, as made famous by the Hubble Space telescope. See here: There’s also an eight-hour livecoding video where I do an assembler and simulator for it, if you’re sufficiently interested…

      The information I’ve found suggests that the Voyager’s CCS used 18-bit words with a 12-bit address space, which is the same as the OBP, so I would guess that they’re quite similar. Interestingly, the OBP is quite different from the contemporary Apollo Guidance Computer (I also did a deep dive, here: The OBP is actually a cleaner design and more powerful. There’s probably a story as to why the two projects used different computers.

    4. My guess would be that NASA owns the patents. That’s certainly true with any of NASA’s employees but why not consultants and contracts. That’s why NASA is considered part of the military, for patent protection. This can be looked up. Public domain? You want the gummint to put aerospace technology in the public domain? That’s adorable!

      1. That user/commenter likely thought of “public domain” because NASA is a public agency. In principle, documents are free to the public/the people thus. Like those space photos are.

        Okay, sure, there are security concerns, as well, which might hinder this approach. But it’s funny to argue like that about 40 to 50 years old technology, which essentially is a human heritage now. It would be quite a loss of face to admit that the US technology hasn’t made any notable progress since. ;)

    5. The article refers to a Firmware update. Firmware is usually that firm and unchanging. Software commonly takes over after a system boots off of firmware. I would be surprised that NASA would send a system to space with firmware that is easily modified as cosmic rays could do that by accident.

      1. In the case of the Voyager probes, that’s exactly the case: the memory is not made of semiconductor, but it’s twistor memory, a cousin of the magnetic core memory, which is not affected by cosmic rays.

    6. The details are out there, but if my experience digging up design data for the V-2 rocket’s stabilization computer is any guide, it’s going to take some work, and the relevant documents aren’t going to be on-line. Examples of sources:
      Dr. James E. Tomayko Collection of NASA Documents, including “Voyager Computer Command Subsystem Flight Software Design Description”.
      Voyager Computer Command Subsystem Document Collection, 1967-1977, which includes a final Box 55 containing “JPL Discreet” records. Discreet records are not available to the public.

  2. I started writing some snark about the missing Retrocomputing tag. But now I wonder if age is the only qualifier for retro computing, or if it isn’t retro when a computer is still and continually fulfilling its original purpose 🤔

    1. It does feel sometimes that Retro Computing is some sort of nostalgic hobby or something. But then you realize that COBOL is still an important programming language and there is actually a current need for programmers.

      1. True. There’s also the term “vintage” that’s more accurate here, maybe.

        Retro more or less means backwards-turning, as in -> looking back to something.

        There’s also “retro-fitting”, which means upgrading an old machine, plane etc. with modern (current) parts.
        Bringing/porting the modern stuff back to the old one, so to say.

        Installing a modern car radio in a vintage car is some sort of retro-fitting, too, I suppose.

        Though the question is if someone wants to do that. Old car radios are cool, especially those with tubes. 😎

      1. I’ve seen an 8″ drive in a medical equipment at a doctor’s office, in the 2000s.

        If the disks are stored properly, they will last very long. Longer than flash media, maybe. It depends on various factors. 8″ floppies use a lower density, so the structures a bigger and less prone to errors/degradion than what was used in the 3,5″ 1,44MB floppy era.

    1. Voyager 2 has a blown capacitor that makes the receiver have a variable frequency. They work around this by transmitting at a series of frequencies to see to which frequency the spacecraft responds now.

    1. Space probes, more precisely. A moon is a satellite, too. It follows another body on an orbit. The Voyagers are flying in straight lines, more or less, by comparison. Anyway, just nitpicking here. Hope you don’t mind. Probes are often being confused for satellites, even in films. Another term for probes or space probes would be robot probes, maybe. Or robots, in general. But that’s 1960s terminology, maybe, not sure. To err is human. 🙂

  3. They built in ota (otv? Ots?) Software update support 50 years ago?? That is insanely impressive. And hilarious that they are sending an update. That’s some long lived software support, you think android of apple will be the first to match it? (Joke)

    Alas, if you could at least update every day modern vehicles, on site.

    1. What’s also neat is that there are multiple computers aboard, for the sake of redundancy.
      In theory, if power goes down to a critical level, maybe one or two can be disabled manually to safe power?
      What I also wonder is how this affects the “over the air” update. Are all computers are being affected instantly ?

  4. Were it not for the “Wasted Tax Dollars” spent on that type of technology at the time, you nay-sayers would not presently be reading what’s in front of you. Go” Voyager’s” I & II

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