The Ancient Technology that Keeps Space Missions Alive

Many space missions re-use technologies. For example, Voyager probes have been around longer than most of my readers. Launched 46 years ago, the twin probes still send data back to Earth (when someone doesn’t tilt its antenna the wrong way).

For good or bad, spacecraft are still controlled from the same annex of JPL. Today’s Linux servers run a virtual environment with an emulator of the old operating system, and the person running the software is part of the original team.

Controllers have had to cope with elderly computer systems. In one case, the original software part of an onboard navigation system ran on a Windows 98 platform to which no one could find the password. They used bolt cutters to extract the hard drives. Following a glitch, engineers found a new way of loading commands into the spacecraft’s 2MB RAM memory (an iPhone 14 starts at 128GB – 64,000 times more memory).

Five years ago, there was a big challenge: a mechanical failure that threatened to end the mission. Mars Express was fitted with six gyroscopes to measure rotation and two cameras that enable the spacecraft to determine its orientation in space. But by 2017, the gyros were failing.

All these missions will eventually come to an end. Except perhaps the Voyager spacecraft will continue its journey for millions of years.

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