NASA launched the Voyager probes in the 1970s, taking advantage of a rare alignment of the outer planets to fling the spacecraft out of the solar system. After more than 40 years, these groundbreaking explorers are still alive and talking to the team here on Earth. We can say that with certainty now that NASA has made significant progress upgrading one of its deep-space communication arrays. NASA just said “hello” to Voyager 2, and the probe said it back.
It can be easy to get confused with the two Voyager spacecraft — Voyager 2 was the first one to launch back in 1977, followed by Voyager 1 several weeks later. Both swung through the outer solar system, visiting planets like Jupiter and Neptune. With the gravity assist from those gas giants, the unmanned explorers flew out past the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud to reach interstellar space. Voyager 1 took a more direct route, and in 2012 became the first object to pass out of the heliosphere (the region of space dominated by the solar wind) and into the interstellar medium. Voyager 2 followed in 2018.
Naturally, talking to a spacecraft 11.6 billion miles (18.8 billion kilometers) away takes some real juice. Unfortunately, NASA only has one antenna in its deep space network capable of communicating with Voyager 2, and it wasn’t in the best shape at the beginning of the year. The dish in question, DSS43, is in Canberra, Australia. The facility has a pair of radio transmitters, one of which was powerful enough to talk to Voyager 2. However, it hadn’t been replaced in 47 years. NASA made the decision to take the dish offline in March 2020 for upgrades.
🎼 V'ger don't lose that number /You don't want to call nobody else 🎵 @CanberraDSN's dish 43, the only radio antenna that can command my twin, Voyager 2, has been offline since March as it gets new hardware. Work is on track to wrap up in February. https://t.co/z6pv2maeGQ pic.twitter.com/cNY0GkbkGu
— NASA Voyager (@NASAVoyager) November 2, 2020
Without DSS43, NASA has had to trust that Voyager 2 will accept commands when it can connect again. The deep space network does have other high-power antennas, but Voyager 2 altered its trajectory in 1989 to conduct a flyby of Neptune’s moon Triton. That maneuver put the spacecraft on a trajectory away from the plane of the solar system. Thus, none of NASA’s systems in the northern hemisphere have line-of-site to the spacecraft. It has been able to listen for signals from Voyager 2 but could not initiate a 2-way link.
NASA is still working on the upgrade, which includes the Voyager transmitter, heating and cooling systems, and power supply enhancements, and more. With the new transmitter in place, the team just couldn’t wait to send a wave Voyager 2’s way. The probe is so distant it took over 34 hours to hear back, but Voyager 2 confirmed the signal and executed the commands as instructed. They don’t build ’em like this anymore.
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