It’s been over 43 years since Voyager 2 has left Earth. Now, mission operators have contacted the spacecraft for the first time since mid-March.
NASA’s Voyager 2 is currently about 125 astronomical units from our planet. That’s 125 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. But mission operators can still communicate with the probe as it speeds through interstellar space.
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On Thursday (Oct. 29) Voyager 2’s handlers beamed signals to the spacecraft using the Deep Space Station 43 (DSS-43) radio antenna in Canberra, Australia. NASA reported that the spacecraft returned a signal confirming it had received the instructions and executed the commands without issue.
The call to Voyager 2 was a test of new hardware recently installed on DSS-43. The dish is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), a collection of radio antennas around the world used primarily to communicate with spacecraft operating beyond the moon.
The breakdown in communications, lasting since March, was due to routine maintenance.
The only dish in the world that can send commands to Voyager 2, the Deep Space Station 43, required critical upgrades and would need to shut down for approximately 11 months for the work to be completed.
During this time, mission operators have been able to receive health updates and science data from Voyager 2. But they haven’t been able to send commands to the spacecraft which is currently over 18.7 billion kilometers (11.6 billion miles) away from Earth and getting farther all the time.
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Engineers have added two new radio transmitters to DSS-43 including one, scientists use to communicate with Voyager 2.
NASA hasn’t replaced that particular transmitter in more than 47 years.
“What makes this task unique is that we’re doing work at all levels of the antenna, from the pedestal at ground level all the way up to the feedcones at the center of the dish that extend above the rim,” Brad Arnold, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California, said in Monday’s update.
“This test communication with Voyager 2 definitely tells us that things are on track with the work we’re doing,” said Arnold, the project manager for NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN).
Engineers have also upgraded heating and cooling equipment, power supply equipment, and other electronics needed to run the new transmitters.
The renovation is still underway and on track to be finalized in February 2021. But enough of the upgrades have been installed for preliminary testing to start.
Out in the interstellar space, Voyager 2 will continue to return data about the speed, density, temperature, and pressure of charged particles in the interstellar medium.
Why is DSS-43 the only dish in the world that can reach Voyager 2?
Well, the answer isn’t quite technological.
After flying by Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus, Voyager 2 made its final planetary flyby in August 1989 past Neptune. But scientists also wanted to fly by Neptune’s intriguing moon Triton. And that’s what they did. They flew there. And as a result, Voyager 2’s trajectory steered significantly southward relative to the Solar System’s plane of planets. That means earthbound antennas in the northern hemisphere have no way of reaching it.
Because Voyager 2 has dipped so far south of the plane of the Solar System, it can now only communicate by the line of sight with the 70-meter-wide antenna in Canberra, Australia.