In 1977, two robotic spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, embarked on a journey through space. After nearly 46 years of exploration, Voyager 2 has recently lost contact with Earth. Communication with the spacecraft is typically done through NASA’s Deep Space Station 43 in Canberra. However, efforts have been made to re-establish contact and a faint “heartbeat” signal has been detected, giving hope for full contact restoration.
The Voyager spacecraft were designed to complete a “grand tour” of the Solar System, visiting Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Throughout their journeys, they stayed in touch with Earth through antennas in Madrid, Spain; Goldstone, California; and Canberra. Having completed their missions in 1989, both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have ventured into interstellar space, exploring the space between stars. Voyager 1 is currently 24 billion kilometers from Earth, while Voyager 2 is not far behind at 20 billion kilometers.
On July 21, a series of commands unintentionally caused Voyager 2’s antenna to point away from Earth, resulting in the spacecraft’s inability to receive commands or transmit data back to Earth. Although mishaps like this are common in space exploration, NASA’s team is skilled at problem-solving and has a successful track record of keeping spacecraft operational beyond their prime missions.
NASA’s science and engineering teams have previously dealt with communication drop-outs with the Voyager spacecraft. Their efforts have already extended the planned 12-year lifespan of the craft, indicating that there may still be more to hear from Voyager 2. Maintaining contact with these spacecraft is a remarkable achievement considering their vast distance from Earth and the weak signals received through the antennas in Canberra. Even when Voyager 2 is pointing towards Earth, its signal is significantly weaker than that of a small watch battery.
The last time Voyager 2 was out of contact was in March 2020 during a scheduled upgrade project for the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. Prior to the shutdown, commands were sent to Voyager 2 to ensure its operations could continue without communication from Earth for an extended period. The Canberra Deep Space Station 43 is the only antenna capable of directly communicating with both Voyager spacecraft. Other sister stations in the northern hemisphere cannot establish contact with Voyager 2 due to Earth’s obstruction.
Since Voyager 2’s antenna was misaligned, the team has been diligently listening for any signal using Deep Space Station 43. Their efforts paid off when they detected the craft’s carrier tone, indicating that Voyager 2 is still transmitting. Attempts will now be made to relay commands to Voyager 2 and instruct it to reorient its antenna towards Earth. If these attempts fail, Voyager 2 is programmed to use the Sun and the star Canopus to reorient itself multiple times a year. The next scheduled reset is on October 15, which should automatically restore communication.
The team in Canberra feels a strong connection to Voyager 2 and has been involved in its journey from the beginning. They plan to continue providing mission support for as long as the mission lasts. Voyager 2 was launched in August 1977 and reached Jupiter in July 1979, shortly after Voyager 1. It then flew by Saturn in 1981 and had encounters with Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in August 1989, completing its “grand tour.”
Given their good health, both spacecraft were given an extended mission to reach the edge of the Solar System, where the influence of the Sun’s energy diminishes. The Voyagers are now in interstellar space, allowing them to directly measure this environment for the first time. The data they have returned have already contributed to our understanding of the Universe, and both NASA and the team in Canberra are confident that there are more scientific discoveries to come when Voyager 2 once again establishes contact with Earth.