NASA is trying to listen for any peep from Voyager 2 after it lost contact with the spacecraft billions of miles away.
Hurtling ever deeper into interstellar space, Voyager 2 has been out of touch ever since flight controllers accidentally sent a wrong command more than a week ago that tilted its antenna away from Earth. The spacecraft’s antenna shifted a mere 2%, but it was enough to cut communications.
Essentially, Voyager 2 and Earth are not in communication. They’re “talking past” each other.
Although it’s considered a long shot, NASA said on Monday that its huge dish antenna in Canberra was on the lookout for any stray signals from Voyager 2, which is more than 12bn miles (19bn km) away.
The spacecraft is equipped with a high-gain antenna measuring 3.7 meters across. It communicates with the Deep Space Network via the S band (13 cm wavelength) channel as well as in the X band (3.6 cm wavelength). At its current distance, the spacecraft’s signals take about 17.5 hours to get back to Earth. That time increases as the spacecraft gets farther away.
Voyager 2 was launched from Florida in 1977 to study the outer solar system as well as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – and was sent up just a couple weeks ahead of its identical twin, Voyager 1. It entered interstellar space in 2018, having discovered a host of new moons on Uranus and one on Jupiter.
In the coming week, the Canberra antenna – part of NASA’s Deep Space Network – will also bombard Voyager 2’s vicinity with the correct command, in the hope that it hits its mark, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the Voyager missions.
NASA could have to wait until October for contact with Voyager 2
Otherwise, NASA will have to wait until October for an automatic spacecraft reset that should restore communication, according to officials.
Voyager 2 successfully fulfilled its primary mission of visiting the Jovian system in 1979, the Saturnian system in 1981, Uranian system in 1986, and the Neptunian system in 1989. The spacecraft is now in its extended mission of studying interstellar space. It has been operating for 45 years, 11 months and 11 days as of August 1, 2023.
Interestingly, while Voyager 2 is out of communications with Earth, Voyager 1 is still talking with the Deep Space Network. It’s about 24 billion kilometers from Earth.
Ultimately, they’re headed out on two very different trajectories through the stars. They have enough power to operate for a few more years (2025 or thereabouts) to send back information to Earth about their environments.