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NASA Space

Antique Voyager Technology 293

Posted by kdawson
from the spinning-tapes-and-flashing-lights dept.
sea_stuart writes with a story from the Tidbinbilla space tracking station, outside Canberra, Australia. It is still communicating with the two Voyager spacecraft 30 years after they were launched and 18 years after Voyager 2 passed close by Neptune. Here's a little background on Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. "The bank of computers that would look at home in black-and-white episodes of Doctor Who cannot be junked... [T]he 1970s hardware is now our world's only means of chatting with two robot pioneers exploring the solar system's outer limits. Today Voyager 1 is humanity's most remote object, 15.5 billion kilometers from the sun. Voyager 2 is 12.5 billion kilometers from it. Both continue beaming home reports, but now they are space-age antiques. 'The Voyager technology is so outmoded,' said Tidbinbilla's spokesman, Glen Nagle, 'we have had to maintain heritage equipment to talk to them.'"
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Antique Voyager Technology

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  • Is it really that impossible to run these machines inside an emulator on a modern server?

    I can still play my atari 2600 games on my xbox.
    • by QMalcolm (1094433) on Sunday September 02, 2007 @03:58AM (#20439079)
      This is a total guess, but I'd think that just communicating with something like Voyager 1 would rely on lots of funky old hardware. I mean, the thing is 15 BILLION kilometers away, it's not quite the same as dumping a 2600 cart.
      • by DragonTHC (208439)
        and yet I don't think it would be a problem for modern software or hardware.

        how much computing resources did they have in the late 70's at nasa?

        less than my desktop PC has now.
        • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 02, 2007 @04:10AM (#20439141)

          and yet I don't think it would be a problem for modern software or hardware.
          I think he was thinking more about analog components like amplifiers or something which might be unusual. It's not always all just bits.

          That said, I think the real reason isn't that it's not possible to duplicate with modern technology (it is, of course; anything we could have built then, we can build now), it's just that producing a new system just to communicate with Voyager would probably cost more than maintaining what we've got now. Especially since any new system would likely have unforeseen bugs in it, which could possibly result in loss of communication with the space craft (imagine accidentally sending a command which orders the Voyagers to point their radio antennas away from Earth).

          Still, it's a bit like the ridiculous argument that some day we won't be able to read CD-ROMs, because the technology will have advanced so far, the hardware will no longer exist. Well, yes, maybe. But scientists will always be able to build something that can scan the surface of a CD-ROM, and decode the data there. But it might not be very economical (though I doubt it; a binary infrared laser scanning device is pretty dirt simple). There's a big difference there between what's economically and technologically unfeasible.
        • by arth1 (260657) on Sunday September 02, 2007 @05:13AM (#20439365) Homepage Journal
          The problem isn't that a new computer can't emulate the software, it's more that it (a) can't do it out of the box and (b) can't emulate the hardware. If you, say, need a 75/1200 baud serial connection to connect to the tranceiver, it doesn't help that USB or Firewire is much faster. And where do you find a 75/1200 serial connector card for a PC? And how's your PC's EBCDIC character set support, for that matter?
          If you have to design both the hardware and the software, it's going to be expensive. Not to say untested. And with the probes being where they are, it's not like you get a second chance if there's a bug. Things have to work perfectly, every time. You'd have a hard time convincing anyone that your emulation would be perfect enough to replace something that's aced the test of time for 25 years.
          • by Pseudonym (62607) on Sunday September 02, 2007 @06:09AM (#20439567)

            And where do you find a 75/1200 serial connector card for a PC?

            Give me a week and a modern microcontroller and I'll build you one. Someone else can write the driver.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by nurb432 (527695)
            Ok, so run them in parallel for 10 years. Its not like there is a hurry here.

            And since you seem to hik we cant create 'new', what happens when one of the old ones die and we cant repair it due to its age? At least if we have tried to replicate the functions with modern equipment we have a chance.

            Cost is relative, in this case.
          • by Lumpy (12016)
            Actually just fine.

            Using a linux install and maybe an hour in my junk bin I can build what you need and write the driver and converting from and to the documented different protocolos and sets is a snap. I bet that given the documentation a college grad student can give them a old outdated PC that will do the job in a weekend.

            It blows my mind that smart people think things have to be "purchased" they do not. build them. you have the specifications. and I bet that someone has a EBCDIC set for linux out
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by jlarocco (851450)

              It blows my mind that smart people think things have to be "purchased" they do not. build them. you have the specifications. and I bet that someone has a EBCDIC set for linux out there already.

              They *already* built the system. They already have a staff capable of maintaining it and fixing it when it breaks. Building a new one won't let them communicate with the probes any faster.

              So what would be the purpose of building a completely new one?

              It blows my mind that nobody seems to understand upgrading

              • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

                by Reaperducer (871695)

                It blows my mind that nobody seems to understand upgrading "just because" is a really stupid idea.
                It's the Microsoft Mentality (tm).
          • Building some parts from scratch is still possible. Plans for old equipment is still available. Using unique parts instead of high tech chips are still possible.

            The issue here BRAIN power. Go watch "Space Cowboys", that is showing the our thought process that the young do not understand the basics.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            it's going to be expensive. Not to say untested. And with the probes being where they are, it's not like you get a second chance if there's a bug. Things have to work perfectly, every time. You'd have a hard time convincing anyone that your emulation would be perfect enough to replace something that's aced the test of time for 25 years.

            Isn't that always the case? Yes, the system could be rewritten, if there was time and money to do so. Yes, the old hardware could be emulated, as-is, in new hardware. But

        • I've read that a Furby has more processing power than everything on the lunar lander combined.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by joeava (1147727)
      The problem is in the remote end.
    • by gone_bush (578354) on Sunday September 02, 2007 @05:34AM (#20439435)
      No can do - the licence specifically prohibits running the software in a virtual machine.
    • by mrmeval (662166) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [lavemrm]> on Sunday September 02, 2007 @05:37AM (#20439443) Journal
      You are stepping into the twilight zone of the military industrial complex/government procurement system.

      An existing system that works has gone through the bowels of this system and been sanctified.

      It would take as much money to re-engineer it as it does to maintain it. It is an annoying fact that getting money to fix something in either the military or government is easier than getting something new even if the new item would save money. This is one of the reasons several of the systems I've worked on were 20+ years old. The anti-mortar Firefinder radar being used in Iraq was designed in the seventies and finally approved and deployed in the 80s and is still in use today.

      There are plans to replace it but right this instant they need them in the field so it costs much more to refurbish one than to buy either a 'newly' made one which is intended for foreign sales and is not authorized for procurement or procure the newest model.

      Currently the latest and greatest is rumbling around the guts of the system and some prototypes were fielded in 1998 so expect them to be finalized in 2008 and accepted later....

      I wish I could point and say "graft and corruption" but it's fighting that which has led to our current procurement system. It's not ever going to be perfect but it does help to keep sawdust out of MREs.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by jamesh (87723)

        It would take as much money to re-engineer it as it does to maintain it. It is an annoying fact that getting money to fix something in either the military or government is easier than getting something new even if the new item would save money.

        I'm sure you understand why... I think the conversation would go something like this:

        IT: "This new system will cost $1bn, and will save $3bn/year in maintenance on the old system".
        Management: "The previous system was supposed to cost $1bn to develop, and ended up cost

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by PetraData (1135825)
      This assumes that:

      (a) they have the source code
      (b) the source code is not too obfuscated from 1970s engineering paradigms that it can be understood
      (c) the guy who originally wrote the system is not dead so that they can talk to him about all the eccentricities of it
      (d) that it isn't too bulky to cause a slowdown on NASA's emulators when dealing with real time communication
      (e) there is no funky encryption built into the system to protect it from the Soviets

      In terms of cost/benefit analysis, it's probably jus
      • by Qbertino (265505) on Sunday September 02, 2007 @06:04AM (#20439557)
        The reprogrammed Voyager 2 to send color pictures while it had been en route for 15 years allready. Mind you, they reprogrammed Voyager 2 to send *color pictures* made with a system that was built to make b/w pictures. Using a single digit amount of registers to push single bits around a 30 year old computer that has less oomph than todays cheapest calculators aboard a space probe that is a kazillion-billion miles away is quite a stunt. Let alone updating the OS this way to generate color images.

        I think these guys know what they are doing and if they choose to keep the old equipment running in order to communicate more relyably with the Voyagers, I trust they have perfectly valid reasons for it. And no, an off-the-shelf Dell is most probably not a feasable replacement. No matter how powerfull it is.

        Oh, and by the way: A modern computer would drain voyagers batteries so fast, they'd be dead in a few hours. My old Sharp 1403 H Pocket Computer, built with technology from the early-to-mid 80s runs 200+ hours under full load on a pair of button-cells. I haven't replaced them in 10 years and it still runs on them. I have yet to find a modern handheld computer that can do this.
        • by InvalidError (771317) on Sunday September 02, 2007 @09:45AM (#20441231)

          Oh, and by the way: A modern computer would drain voyagers batteries so fast, they'd be dead in a few hours.
          Never mind that Dell's on-site technical support service is currently not offered in extra-solar-system locations.

          Most people here are talking about upgrading the base station on Earth, not the spacecrafts. As someone else pointed out, most of the reason they are sticking with the old system must be quirky analog/RF components, not the bitstreams themselves - the Voyager base-station antenna is a huge dish array that recovers sub-yoctowatt signals from the probes. The analog/RF front-end needed to filter and amplify this signal before it can be decoded by digital equipment must be a very unique piece of analog kit with decades worth of tweaking and refinement poured into it both before and after the launch.

          The digital decoding should be trivial with modern CPUs but the analog parts were most likely tuned to the point of defying modern technology.
      • by Dunbal (464142)
        (a) they have the source code

              You do realize that the RIAA and MPAA's plan to cover the holes in the punch-cards to prevent piracy was a drastic failure, don't you? Of course they have the source code! How many boxes of it do you want?
    • by Nazlfrag (1035012)
      Bloody programmers, forever reinventing the wheel...
    • by Gordonjcp (186804)
      Is it really that impossible to run these machines inside an emulator on a modern server?

      Yes. Yes it is. An emulator cannot capture all the subtleties of the real hardware. Every little quirk would have to be duplicated, even the ones you don't really know about.

      If it was possible, don't you think they'd be doing it?
  • I can well imagine that just running an emulator on modern equipment would be inadequate as the whole peripheral interface is likely incompatible with current standards. However, I am at a loss to understand why they cannot just reimplement the current setup using modern and more reliable components. It must cost a fortune to maintain such old computers and, according to TFA, they want to keep them running for well over 10 more years.
    • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Sunday September 02, 2007 @04:34AM (#20439221) Homepage Journal

      It must cost a fortune to maintain such old computers

      Not really. As long as you have people who understand the hardware and a supply of old machines for spare parts you should be able to keep things ticking along for decades.

      In my last job we ran the entire Melbourne traffic signal system off PDP 11/84's and 83's. Its a good way to keep your wire wrap skills up to scratch.

      • by Gordonjcp (186804)
        In my last job we ran the entire Melbourne traffic signal system off PDP 11/84's and 83's

        There are still thousands (yes, really thousands) of QBus PDP-11s in embedded hardware kicking about. Ventilation systems, process control, all sorts of stuff.

        I've seen a T11 chip (basically a PDP-11 without memory management or hardware floating point) used in an engine management system in a car, dating from about 1982. The whole unit was about the size of a telephone directory.
    • Have you ever tried to backport software to a previous operating system release? Simply finding the documentation and the backups and installation media, then being able to read it is a major issue. I've actually seen old software lost, from my undergraduate days, because there weren't any readers available to recover it.

      Go ahead: find an 8 1/" floppy drive that still works, or a paper tape reader. Finding the set of Rosetta stones to understand such old hardware and convert its capabilities to modern work
    • by RAMMS+EIN (578166)
      ``However, I am at a loss to understand why they cannot just reimplement the current setup using modern and more reliable components.''

      Because modern components aren't more reliable?
  • It's Alright... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by VE3OGG (1034632) <[ac.car] [ta] [GGO3EV]> on Sunday September 02, 2007 @04:09AM (#20439139)
    Even after being flung across the solar system, I am sure Captain Janeway will find a way to repolarize the deflector dish to emit a warp bubble that combined with future Borg technology and that from Species 4971, some old fashioned ingenuity, a transwarp generator, a friendly if dull-witted Talaxian, a half-human half-Klingon baby, a group of Maquis rebels, a hot-shot pilot who doesn't give a damn for regulations, and a hot Borg in a skin-tight leotard will be able to make it back, and the ship will probably be in better condition then when it left!

    I'm sorry... I'm bitter...
  • 32 bits a second (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Nymz (905908) on Sunday September 02, 2007 @04:23AM (#20439187) Journal
    FTA

    That is because the ageing probes can only chat at a sluggish 32 bits a second, far too slow for modern computers.

    (32 bits) x (60 seconds) x (60 minutes) x (24 hours) x (365 days) x (30 years) = (30,274,560,000 bits)
    (30,274,560,000 bits) / (8 bits) / (1024 bytes) / (1024 KiB) / (1024 MiB) = (about 3.5 GiB over 30 years)

    I don't think a modern computer would help, because it's clear that Comcast is seriously throttling their torrent connection.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by tehSpork (1000190)
      The Voyager probes are 15.5 and 12.5 billion kilometers from the sun and Comcast can connect to them, yet still couldn't get a connection out to my house in relative suburbia until a couple years ago?

      I call BS.
  • by Colin Smith (2679) on Sunday September 02, 2007 @04:26AM (#20439191)
    Seems like nobody's done one for the costs of hiring a couple of engineers to reverse engineer or re-implement the protocol...

     
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by arth1 (260657)
      More likely, they have done just that, which is exactly why this runs on legacy hardware and software.

      (The definition of legacy is "something that works".)
  • In (my experience of) public finances, an expenditure to re implement a protocol would be a capital expense, bring on "careful" scrutiny of the whole programme, and risk all these scientists jobs etc. (with no guarantee of getting the cash) and given that the question being answered is more than an entire career in the making (wall clock wise)......... A maintaince bill for existing equipment gets paid (almost) no questions asked.......
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 02, 2007 @05:07AM (#20439349)
    Communication with different equipment has been done. http://www.arrl.org/news/stories/2006/04/25/2/ [arrl.org]

    Proof that it's not a problem to receive and decode. Transmit can't be any harder. But why "upgrade" it if they don't have to? The old equipment probably works just fine, so there is no incentive.
    • The old equipment most likely costs a fortunate to maintain and operate. It most certainly swallows a lot of power compared to modern equipment. Not to mention that it could be harder in the future to get spare parts that blow out, manufacturers going bankrupt or simply ceasing to build something where you are the only possible customer. And those parts will be more expensive than current parts.

      It is likely, though, that the operating costs difference would only offset the investment necessary to switch in
  • Relivs of a time... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Swampash (1131503) on Sunday September 02, 2007 @05:50AM (#20439489)
    ...when NASA inspired me, and the projects in which it was engaged filled me with wonder and curiosity. Nowadays the only thing that amazes me about NASA is the bureaucracy. Well, and the big explosions of course.
    • Yeah, it's kinda sad when the exciting part of space exploration shifts from "will they find something new" to "will they make it back in one piece".
  • by itsdapead (734413) on Sunday September 02, 2007 @05:55AM (#20439513)

    (ring) (ring) (click) G'day, this is Tidbinbilla, how can we help?

    "Er, Hi, This is Ranesh from Advanced Emulation Solutions... I'm testing the VM you commissioned to replace your legacy communications solution. Thing is, there seems to be an undocumented bug in the command protocol and the remote client has locked up. Could some one pop over and power-cycle the client, please?

    ****???^^^^!!!!

    Hey - take it easy - "no worries" as you guys say - just turn off the power, count to ten and turn it on again!

    $$$$!!!!##### !!!!!

    Er, 15.5 billion kilometers, you say? Look, I know you guys like to boast about the size of Australia, but...

    $$$$ ****ING OUTER SPACE !!!!! MOST DISTANT MAN-MADE ****ING OBJECT !!!!!

    Oh. Shit. I wonderered why the ping time was 24 hours.

    Don't you guys have on-site support?

  • How'd they manage to write an article saying the computers "would look at home in black-and-white episodes of Doctor Who" without managing to include a photo of said computers :(
  • by rimcrazy (146022) on Sunday September 02, 2007 @06:28AM (#20439651)
    What is little known externally except by those that actually worked on this project is that the radios work at all is amazing. Motorola GEG built the radios in the Voyager spacecraft. Right after launch of both space crafts there was a failure of a critical capacitor that sets the bandwidth of the acquisition loop filter. The net result of that failure was that the signal acquisition of the radios was severely impaired. In order to compensate for this NASA engineers developed an emperical model of the entire spacecraft while it was on it's initial loop around the sun for it's slingshot to Jupiter. Since it was relatively close they could hit the spacecraft with a very large signal thus ensuring acquisition of the transmitted commands. The model consisted of predicting exactly where the front end input LO would be depending upon the temperature of the space craft, the added doppler due to movement, aging of the crystals, etc, etc. Basically anything that could effect the LO was factored in. Once the model was complete, the ground stations would then use and probably still use, this model to predict what the frequency for lockup needs to be. Due to the efforts of the engineers at NASA, they were able to "save" both spacecraft and the mission. And they still work today!!! Pretty amazing.
  • outmoded? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by timmarhy (659436) on Sunday September 02, 2007 @06:30AM (#20439669)
    Sounded a lot like penis envy to me. Those engineers in the 70's knew what they were doing, unlike the kids today who breeze past their competency based exams.

    The voyager sats are some of our most successful missions, i'd challenge anyone to do better then their "out modded" systems.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      The voyager sats are some of our most successful missions, i'd challenge anyone to do better then their "out modded" systems.

      The IRS seems to be pretty succesful: they still run their 1960s mainframes [com.com], yet they're still pinching everybody's money. That's one mission everybody would like to see fail...
      • Ahhh, now the tax forms make sense. The IRS goes by the old school hackers mantra "What was hard to implement should be hard to understand".
  • I don't really understand the part about having to preserve ancient hardware from the 70's to communicate with them.

    Isn't it just based on pretty simple technology, and a quite simple communications protocol?

    How complex can a software to communicate with the Voyager probes be, and can't it be ported?

    Sure, the hw it runs on over at NASA won't be the same, but the end requirement simply has to be to communicate with radio waves over high latencies, and they have plenty of modern hardware for that, or...?
  • by Alioth (221270)
    Anyone got any good pictures of these "old computer banks"? If so, URL?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by FeebleOldMan (1089749)
      I couldn't find any pictures of the Voyager computer banks, but I found [honeysucklecreek.net] these [honeysucklecreek.net] pictures [honeysucklecreek.net] of old computer banks from the Viking era, which is about a year or two before the Voyager program. The Voyager computer banks would probably look something like this.
  • It's the computer equalant of tin cans and string. The string may be frayed but if you cut it you may never get it working again. It does make you wonder how much luck alien civilizations will have decrypting our signals if we have this much trouble communicating with our own technology? Can they possibly do it? Of coarse but how much effort will it take and are the shaved chimpanzes beaming I Love Lucky at them really worth their time and trouble to talk to? Or will our first communication with aliens be,
  • by DynaSoar (714234) on Sunday September 02, 2007 @07:40AM (#20440121) Journal
    When someone says "Why don't they just", it usually means they have no idea how it's being done, and is just taking that opportunity to show what they know, even though they have no idea if it's applicable.

    When someone says "Why don't we just", they're probably working on the project and know what they're talking about.

    If they could just, they probably would have justed a long time ago. These are, after all, the people who rebuilt the receiver scheduled to receive the Apollo 11 LEM and EVA transmissions in just 12 hours, after it caught fire 1 day into the mission. It was NASA's call not to use them due to the problem, but they could have done it because they know very well what they're doing and how to do it.

  • The communications are the amazing part of all of this. Imagine a 7 watt transmitter 12+ billion kilometers away. The receiver to caputure any signal from the noise is an amazing feat of engineering. Even with dish antennas, the signal is so weak by the time it reaches Earth that it must be buried deep in noise. Thus, the receiver would need to be able to filter out the noise and that isn't an easy task. The radio engineers for Voyager deserve their recognition too.
  • now at an estimated 94.3 AU or 14.1 billion km (8.8 billion miles).  Lets just hope nobody figures out that
    plaque and decides to build an interplanetary bypass through our solar system.
  • Hell, it sound like WE can't play the damn thing anymore.

    No matter. I have always thought that the message on V1 and V2 were waste. The aliens of course would recognize that intelligent creatures launched the spacecraft, and know what direction it came from, namely Sol.

    What more would they really need to know to either 1) start a conversation or 2) plan an invasion?
  • "News for Nerds"? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by chris_sawtell (10326) on Monday September 03, 2007 @12:21AM (#20448589) Journal
    If /. really was "News for Nerds", it would tell us exactly what 35 year old equipment is still working.

    It doesn't. Therefore /. must have made it into the "Mainstream Media" cabal.:-)
    I don't know whether I should celebrate or commiserate. I fear the latter.

    Anyway, anybody know what comps. etc are being used at the Tidbinbilla space tracking station?br I'm old enough to be genuinely interested.

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