Since its launch in 1977, NASA’s legendary spacecraft Voyager 2 has been faithfully sending back information to Earth from 12 billion miles away. Recently, a human error temporarily severed this connection, but it appears that the probe is still very much alive and well, according to NASA’s latest reports.
On July 21, communication with the unmanned probe was lost due to a wrong command sent by controllers, causing its antenna to tilt away from Earth. NASA only revealed this issue last Friday. The situation looked bleak, but the persistence of engineers and the American Space Agency’s Deep Space Network (DSN) has paid off.
DSN, comprising giant radio antennas spread across the globe, picked up what’s being called a “heartbeat signal” from Voyager 2 this past Tuesday. This means the 46-year-old spacecraft is once again operating. Engineers are now working on a command to redirect the spacecraft back toward Earth.
“Engineers will now try to send Voyager 2 a command to point itself back at Earth,” tweeted Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on Tuesday. “If that does not work, we’ll have to wait until October when the spacecraft’s onboard software automatically tells it to reset its direction.”
The news has lifted spirits within the space community. Project manager Suzanne Dodd told The Associated Press that this development has “buoyed” the team. If the command doesn’t succeed, a long wait until October awaits for an automatic spacecraft reset. “That is a long time to wait, so we’ll try sending up commands several times before then,” said Dodd.
Voyager 2’s distinguished career has taken it to all four of the solar system’s gas giant planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Along the way, it has made remarkable discoveries, such as evidence of oceans beneath the icy crusts of Europa and Enceladus, two moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
Now in the latter stages of its life, Voyager 2 has begun using a small reservoir of backup power to help keep its instruments operating. NASA has been reducing its capabilities to conserve energy, expecting the probe to keep transmitting weak radio signals until at least the mid-2020s.
Deep Space Station 43, part of NASA’s Deep Space Network, remains the only antenna on Earth that can send commands to Voyager 2. It’s a painstaking process, taking more than 18 hours for a response signal from Voyager 2 to reach Earth, owing to the vast distance.
Voyager 2’s twin, Voyager 1, continues to function normally at around 15 billion miles away. Both are programmed to reset their orientation several times a year to maintain communication with Earth. The next reset is set to occur on October 15, which should enable communication to resume if it hasn’t already.
The Voyager missions are a testament to human ingenuity and the thirst for exploration. “The science data that the Voyagers are returning gets more valuable the farther away from the sun they go, so we are definitely interested in keeping as many science instruments operating for as long as possible,” said Linda Spilker, Voyager’s project scientist at JPL.
Despite one of its five science instruments being turned off in 2026, engineers expect the Voyager 2 mission to “continue for years to come.”
The Voyager mission consists of two unmanned spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, which were launched by NASA in 1977 with the primary goal of exploring the outer planets of our solar system.
Voyager 1 was launched on September 5, 1977, and Voyager 2 was launched earlier on August 20, 1977. Despite being launched later, Voyager 1’s trajectory was a faster path, overtaking Voyager 2. Both Voyagers carry a golden record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper disc carrying sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, intended to communicate with any extraterrestrial life forms who may find them.
Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to have visited all four gas giant planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. These flybys provided invaluable data about the planets’ atmospheric conditions, magnetic fields, ring systems, and moons. Voyager 2’s encounter with Neptune in 1989 marked NASA’s last official planetary visit in the 20th century.
Voyager 1, while it did not visit as many planets, has the distinction of being the farthest human-made object from Earth. In August 2012, it crossed the heliopause, entering interstellar space.
The twin Voyager spacecraft have dramatically expanded our knowledge of the outer solar system, including the discovery of active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io, the complex surface of Titan, the most Earth-like atmosphere found on any other moon or planet, and the mysterious, previously unknown rings of Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune.
As of now, both Voyager 1 and 2 are on a mission called the Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM), which aims to extend NASA’s exploration of the solar system beyond the neighborhood of the outer planets to the outer limits of the Sun’s sphere of influence.