What? Voyager 2 seized by aliens in space?

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Pablo Edronkin

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Voyager 2 is a robotic probe that was launched decades ago and has proved so far to be one of the most successful research missions ever sent to space by humankind; unfortunately, normal contact was lost with the ship during the early months of 2010 at about 13 light hours distance after some garbled data was sent by Voyager, leading some people to believe that it has been seized by aliens.

Of course, that's a way to think about the issue: an ufo was passing by and for whatever reason, its occupants decided to seize the object sent by Earthlings. Another hypothesis would be to assume that it was the Easter Bunny who pooed on its antenna.

People believe what they want because there is simply no way to go there fast enough and fix the thing. The odds are that the equipment of this probe that has spent many years within a very aggressive environment simply failed. Things do fail after a while, and spacecraft are not the exception.

There is a simple explanation, which is also the most likely: The Voyager uses compression algorithms to pack the data it sends much like what we do with our own computers when we pack or zip a file in order to save space. Voyager does exactly the same when sending a message as when we send email messages with attached files in order to save significant amounts of energy, which is scarce out there. If due to a computer glitch or hardware malfunction after being so long in space, especially in the mostly-unknown outer solar system region, one of the variables used gets randomly altered, then the patterns reconstructed as expected would appear garbled.

Failures that develop following a domino-like patter would cause partial disabilities first, and then propagate until the whole system stops working. In the case of Voyager 2, a micro meteor would do the trick, for example. Such bugs occur sometimes when you unzip a file on Earth: Suddenly the program tells you that there is a CRC error and the file is impossible to read, or something like that. It can also happen in space without any need for alien intervention.



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