Late last year, after almost 50 years of clear communications, a memory chip inside NASA's Voyager 1 failed, garbling its messages back to Earth.

Working 15.3 billion miles away, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory scrambled to devise an intricate, and incredibly risky, plan to fix Voyager 1. Once they embarked on the repair there was no guarantee they'd ever get the deep space probe back.

And so, for five months, the fate of Voyager 1 hung in the balance. 

Just a few weeks ago, buried deep in this crazy news cycle, engineers at JPL announced they had successfully re-rooted data to a new memory location and soon after they received a clean communication back from Voyager 1. Their experiment had worked. Voyager 1 was back online. 

I was almost brought to tears listening to one of the JPL engineers recount this story on a recent podcast. Afterwards I sat down and gathered some facts:

  • No human-made object has traveled as far, and as far from Earth, as Voyager 1.
  • It is moving at 38,027 mph.
  • It is the first human-made object to enter interstellar space (ie- beyond our solar system).
  • Voyager 1 was originally designed to last five years.
  • And after 47 years of uninterrupted service, its battery is expected to run out in 2025.
  • It is currently traveling in the coldest temperatures it's ever endured (minus 110 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • Despite its distance from Earth, Voyager 1 can still execute commands. It takes about 24 hours for messages to reach Voyager 1.
  • To conserve its power, most of Voyager 1's instruments have been shut down. Yet it continues to function, completely defying expectations
  • And let's not forget: on February 14, 1990, at Carl Sagan's behest, Voyager 1 took one of the most humbling and poignant photos ever taken.

On a 12-inch ruler, with Earth at one end and Voyager 1 at its current position at the other end, the Moon would be approximately 0.0002 inches away from Earth, and the Sun would be approximately 0.08 inches away from Earth.

Is this the most durable tool ever made? It's hard to conceive that an object we built almost 50 years ago is still functioning, let alone traveling at those speeds, in those temperatures, and at that distance. Thinking of Voyager 1 out there in deep space, on its own, fills me with both hope and despair. 

All my best,