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spaceSpace and Physics

No, Aliens Did Not Hack Voyager 2 Back In 2010

author

Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockFeb 17 2017, 16:44 UTC

Artist impression of the Voyager probe. NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the last few days, there have been some reports that the Voyager 2 spacecraft was hacked in 2010 and even more importantly it was probably done by aliens. So let’s have a look at the facts and let’s separate them from the rather obvious fiction.

On May 6, 2010, NASA engineers put out a press release that the Voyager 2 has been transmitting unreadable data for the past few weeks. The cause of it all was a single computer bit that had flipped, making the transmitting data unreadable.

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The website Physics-Astronomy reported this last October, based on a story run by the Telegraph on May 14, 2010, with speculation from German pseudoscience author Hartwig Hausdorf that the probe was being hacked by aliens.

"It seems almost as if someone has reprogrammed or hijacked the probe – thus perhaps we do not yet know the whole truth,” Hausdorf told the German Newspaper Bild.

And he was partly right. The whole truth would come out a few days later, when NASA confirmed that the cause was one flip of a bit in the memory of an onboard computer and by May 20, the whole system was back to being fully operational.

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The probe was neither reprogrammed nor hijacked. While the science data was illegible, NASA could still get the health data of the craft, which showed everything was going fine and dandy. In all likelihood a natural external factor caused the bit to flip.

A cosmic ray – high-energy particles from interstellar space – might have been responsible for it. According to an extensive IBM study on the subject, computers on Earth experience one cosmic-ray-induced error per 256 megabytes of RAM per month.

The study, which was commissioned in the '90s, is about Earth computers that are actually being used quite safely within Earth’s magnetic field. Voyager 2 is at the edge of the Solar System, where cosmic sources of radiation are more intense. A software error due to a cosmic ray is a possible explanation.

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Voyager 2 is the third furthest human-made object from Earth, now at a distance of 17 billion kilometers (10.6 billion miles) almost 32 light-hours away. It’s catching up to the second furthest object, Pioneer 10, but will never beat Voyager 1, which is now in interstellar space.


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