New York City, NY
July 15, 2024
NASA has regained contact with Voyager 2 after losing it for a week
Space

NASA has regained contact with Voyager 2 after losing it for a week

Aug 24, 2023
An artist's impression of NASA's Voyager spacecraft

An artist’s impression of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft

NASA/JPL

On 21 July, NASA lost touch with the Voyager 2 spacecraft, which is nearly 20 billion kilometres away from Earth. Now, operators have heard from Voyager 2 again – the spacecraft is still working, but they are still struggling to regain full communication.

Voyager 2 launched in 1977 and has been hurtling towards the outer edges of the solar system and into interstellar space since then. It is now the second-most distant spacecraft from Earth after its sibling craft, Voyager 1, which is almost 24 billion kilometres away. Several of its science instruments, including its magnetometer and its cosmic ray detector, are still working 46 years after launch and sending data back to Earth.

Or they were, at least, until 21 July, when a series of commands from mission control inadvertently shifted the orientation of the spacecraft, pointing its antenna just 2 degrees away from Earth. That meant that the signals from the spacecraft weren’t reaching satellite dishes on the ground, and operators couldn’t send any signals to try to turn it back towards us.

Thankfully, they aren’t completely in the dark. On 31 July, NASA detected a faint hint of what is called a “carrier signal” from Voyager 2. Generally, if the antenna was aligned properly, this signal would contain real-time data from the spacecraft, but because it isn’t aligned the signal wasn’t strong enough to extract anything from it.

“We see the ‘heartbeat’ signal from the spacecraft… so we know the spacecraft is alive and operating,” said Suzanne Dodd, the manager of the Voyager project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, in a statement sent to New Scientist. While catching the signal was unexpected, the fact that the spacecraft itself is fine wasn’t a big surprise – it has been scudding along for 46 years, after all.

But if anything were to go wrong, we would have no way to send any commands to Voyager 2 while the antenna is pointed away from Earth. “We are now generating a new command to attempt to point the spacecraft antenna toward Earth,” said Dodd. “There is a low probability that this will work.”

Even if it doesn’t work, all is not lost – Voyager 2 is programmed to automatically reset its orientation a few times a year in case of situations just like this one. The next automatic reset will be on 15 October, and communication should resume then. Until then, the spacecraft’s operators will keep trying to turn it around and continue to monitor the heartbeat signal.

Topics:

source

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *