NASA’s Voyager-2 has been flying through space for 43 years (almost two years in interstellar space) and it has been completely solo for the last eight months. The only dish in the world that can send commands to the spacecraft, the Deep Space Station 43 (DSS43), is undergoing repairs and upgrades. This means Voyager-2 has not heard from us in a while and vice-versa.
Last week, a few commands were sent to the spacecraft during a test. After 34 hours and 48 minutes, the team received a hello from deep space. Voyager-2 is fine and is able to execute commands 18.8 billion kilometers (11.7 billion miles) from Earth.
DSS43 is located in Canberra, Australia, and is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network, the collection of radio antennas used to communicate with spacecraft beyond the orbit of the Moon. The two other facilities are in Goldstone, California, and Madrid, Spain. Usually, spacecraft can be contacted by any of the three stations, but Voyager-2 is the exception. To image Neptune’s moon Triton, it was placed on an orbit that is sending it more and more south with respect to the plane of the Solar System, meaning it can only be contacted from Australia.
Built in 1972, the antenna has been upgraded over time, but most of the equipment is the original from almost 50 years ago. The most recent long offline period was necessary to provide a complete refurbishment to DSS43 and install new hardware. The 70-meter-wide (230-foot-wide) antenna will be fully operational in February.
"What makes this task unique is that we're doing work at all levels of the antenna, from the pedestal at ground level all the way up to the feedcones at the center of the dish that extend above the rim," Brad Arnold, the DSN project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, said in a statement. "This test communication with Voyager 2 definitely tells us that things are on track with the work we're doing."
The Voyager-2 probe continues to travel and perform scientific measurements 43 years after its launch and 31 years after its primary mission ended. Its newly refurbished DSS43 will be crucial for current and more close-to-home missions, as well as upcoming missions such as Perseverance on Mars and the Artemis Program to send humans back to the Moon.
"The DSS43 antenna is a highly specialized system; there are only two other similar antennas in the world, so having the antenna down for one year is not an ideal situation for Voyager or for many other NASA missions," added Philip Baldwin, operations manager for NASA's Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Program. "The agency made the decision to conduct these upgrades to ensure that the antenna can continue to be used for current and future missions. For an antenna that is almost 50 years old, it's better to be proactive than reactive with critical maintenance."