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NASA Contact with Voyager 2 Reestablished

UPDATE: As of 12:29 AM EDT on August 4, NASA has restored contact with Voyager 2. The organizations Deep Space Station 43 at Canberra, Australia had sent what was referred to as a “shout” across more than 12.3 billion miles as an attempt to restore contact. According to JPL’s update, “the spacecraft began returning science and telemetry data, indicating it is operating normally and that it remains on its expected trajectory.”

NASA has lost contact with its long-lived Voyager 2 spacecraft. The Voyager Mission has been attempting to reestablish contact and continue its deep space mission. These spacecrafts have contributed greatly to NASA and humanity’s understanding of the solar system.

NASA Lost Contact with Voyager 2

A rendition of Voyager 2. It is credited to NASA/JPL-Caltech

On July 28, 2023, JPL announced that NASA had lost contact with Voyager 2. This was the result of a “series of planned commands” sent on July 21 which “inadvertently caused the antenna to point 2 degrees away from Earth.” This means that the spacecraft cannot “receive commands or transmit data” back to NASA’s Deep Space Network. However, Voyager 2 reorients itself “multiple times each year” to ensure contact with NASA. October 15 is the next orientation, and JPL stated that it ought to reestablish contact then.

The article also noted that Voyager 1 is functioning properly.

On August 1, NASA released an update. According to the organization, “NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) was able to detect a carrier signal from Voyager 2” through employment of multiple antennas. Despite the spacecraft’s attempt to communicate, this “signal is too faint for data to be extracted”, though it does mean that the craft is in operation.

NASA asserts that Voyager 2 maintains its planned trajectory. The Voyager mission wants to reestablish communication prior to the expected reorientation in October. Accordingly, “a DSN antenna will be used to “shout” the command to Voyager to turn its” own toward Earth. If this fails, the mission will await the October reorientation.

NASA Voyager Mission

Flight paths of Voyagers 1 and 2. This is credited to John Uri.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained that the Voyager spacecrafts were “designed to take advantage of a rare geometric arrangement of the outer planets”. Those planets are Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. This is a window during which a spacecraft on a certain flight path can “swing from one planet to the next” without requiring considerable propulsion. This phenomenon, which takes place “about every 175 years”, occurred during the 1970s and 80s.

Voyagers 1 and 2 were launched from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral on September 5 and August 20, 1977, respectively. The spacecrafts were originally intended to carry out “close flybys of Jupiter and its large moon Io, and Saturn and its large moon Titan” because of budgetary concerns. However, there was the possibility of Voyager 2 visiting the outer planets Uranus and Neptune.

Voyager 1’s path brought it “to Jupiter on March 5, 1979, and Saturn on November 12, 1980”. After that, it went “northward out of the ecliptic plane” and toward interstellar space. Voyager 2 went “to Jupiter on July 9, 1979, and Saturn on August 25, 1981”. It flew “by Saturn at a point that would automatically send the spacecraft” toward Uranus.

It was then discovered that Voyager 2’s systems would still be operational when it flew by Uranus. NASA authorized funding for JPL to continue the mission toward Uranus and Neptune. The spacecraft conducted its “closest approach[es]” of the two planets on January 24, 1986, and August 25, 1989, respectively.

Voyager 1 has traveled over 14.8 billion miles from Earth. Voyager 2 has traveled over 12.3 billion miles. JPL maintains a counter that keeps track of the distance of the two spacecraft from our planet, as well as other information.

Voyager’s Scientific Discoveries

An image of Saturn by Voyager 2. This is credited to NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The two Voyager spacecrafts have contributed significantly to humanity’s understanding of the outer planets. The mission discovered that Jupiter’s Great Red Spot was “a complex storm moving in a counterclockwise direction.” Voyager found active volcanic activity on another body for the first time on the gas giant’s moon Io. The two crafts combined witnessed nine eruptions on the moon. Ganymede was identified as the largest moon in the solar system. Voyager also discovered a “ring of material” around Jupiter.

The Voyager mission was intrigued by Saturn’s rings. JPL’s Voyager Fact Sheet describes how the prevailing theory is “that the rings formed from larger moons that were shattered by impacts of comets and meteoroids.” Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, has an atmosphere that may be similar to that of Earth’s prior to life existing on our planet.

Uranus “is tipped on its side”, possibly due to colliding with another “planet-sized body” in the past. Voyager 2 discovered that this caused the tale of its tilted magnetic field to be “twisted by the planet’s rotation into a long corkscrew shape behind” it. The spacecraft also discovered 10 moons not previously known to orbit the gas giant. Uranus’ rings were found to be fundamentally different from the ones around Jupiter and Saturn.

Voyager 2 discovered six of Neptune’s moons. The spacecraft detected what was called the Great Dark Spot, a dark area the size of a planet on the gas giant’s surface, as well as other spots. Neptune was also found to have the most powerful winds of any planet in the system. The planet’s magnetic field is tilted similarly to Uranus’.

NASA’s Communication Issue with Voyager 2

An image of Neptune by Voyager 2. This is credited to NASA/JPL-Caltech.

This is not the first time that NASA has not been able to communicate with Voyager 2. The organization lost contact with the spacecraft on its end for a period during 2020 when Canberra’s Deep Space Station 43 went offline. NASA continued to received data transmitted from the spacecraft to Earth. The station is the only one which can communicate with Voyager 2. The antenna which had been employed for that purpose had been in operation for 47 years.

Voyager 2’s “close flyby of Neptune’s moon Triton in 1989” forced it to pass over the north pole of the gas giant. Therefore, it has traveled “southward relative to the plane of the planets” ever since. Due to the distance the spacecraft has traveled, it can only communicate with antennas in Earth’s southern hemisphere, and Canberra is the only option.

According to a NASA, “the 70-meter-wide (230-foot-wide) radio antenna […] went offline for repairs and upgrades” in March 2020. The station reestablished contact with Voyager 2 on October 29, 2020. The spacecraft “returned a signal confirming it had received the “call” and executed” NASA’s commands.

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