Back to the future

Posted by Rich Talcott
on Thursday, December 21, 2006

Time travel has always intrigued me. Sometimes, I like to imagine what it would have been like to witness an historic event. Say, to be on the balcony with Galileo when he first saw the moons of Jupiter or the phases of Venus, and started us down the long road to understanding our place in the universe. Other times, I think about what the future may hold.

So, it should come as no surprise that I perked up when I read the latest update from the Jet Propulsion Lab on the Cassini spacecraft's mission to Saturn. There, in the entry for Wednesday, December 13, I came across this nifty passage: "At the Tuesday Ops Status and Coordination Meeting, Radio and Plasma Wave Science team members reported that they had received science data from the future — May of 2007 to be exact."

Now there's something you don't read every day. The next sentence told me that the flight team members were as amused by the report as I was — although they also had some concerns. It turns out, this was just the latest in a string of reports from the various instrument teams regarding data problems in the first part of December.

Members of the Command and Data Subsystem (CDS) team figured out that the data corruption arose through "double-bit-error hits" in the onboard computer's memory after the data had been recorded. And the problem coincided with a strong increase in solar activity — the same activity that gave us those glorious aurorae on Earth a week ago.

Although such double-bit errors are temporary, because the affected memory gets overwritten regularly, they do cause some data corruption. Fortunately, the CDS team expects the error rates to return to normal once the Sun quiets down. Unfortunately, at least for us time-travel buffs, we'll have to wait for the first real message from the future.

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