The following is an excerpt from David Goldman | October 28, 2015 | CNN.com |
Imagine if you were working on a 40-year-old computer at your office. Your IT department wouldn't even know what to do with it.
That's the problem NASA's Voyager mission faces. The spacecraft was built in 1975 and has a computer from the Atari age. The last guy who truly understands how to program it is 80-year-old NASA engineer Larry Zottarelli.
And he's retiring.
NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft is 20 billion kilometers away from Earth (in 2013, it became the first man-made object to leave the solar system). The primary mission of Voyager was to explore Jupiter and Saturn, but its mission was extended long beyond its intended purpose. Needless to say, it would be a little difficult to upgrade its on-board computer.
"It's like flying an Apple II computer," said Suzy Dodd, Voyager's project manager. "It should be in a museum."
Zottarelli has been on the Voyager mission since the day it launched: September 5, 1977. He works on Voyager's flight data systems, which have just 64 kilobytes of memory (0.000064 gigabytes) and run a long-since retired computer language.
To determine that Voyager 1 had left the solar system, the team had to listen to audio recorded by Voyager's 8-track tape recorder (interstellar space sounds different than the outer reaches of the solar system). But Voyager was only programmed to play back its recordings for 45 seconds twice a year. Dodd wanted to get Voyager to speed that up a bit.
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