Twelve days after erroneous instructions pushed Voyager 2’s antenna 2 degrees off the line to Earth resulting in NASA losing contact with the spacecraft the first step has been made to restoring communications.
Voyager 2 is now almost 20 billion kilometers from Earth (12.3 billion miles) or 18.4 light-hours. That would make communications dicey under any circumstances, and it’s much worse when the instruments at the other end are almost 50 years old. The fact it’s still doing research for us is almost miraculous.
These factors also mean there is not much margin for error, so when a signal was sent to the spacecraft on July 11 that slightly redirected the main antenna away from Earth, contact was lost. NASA engineers were aware of risks like this, so Voyager 2 is programmed to reorientate itself to try to find Earth a few times a year, with the next effort in October.
No one wants to wait that long, leaving the craft to its own devices for two months, so NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) is trying to restore communication beforehand. On August 1, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced it had detected Voyager 2’s carrier signal, which it calls “A bit like hearing the spacecraft’s ‘heartbeat’”.
“The signal is too faint for data to be extracted, but the detection confirms that the spacecraft is still operating,” JPL reports. Unsurprisingly, since there is no obvious force that could have diverted it, the spacecraft continues on its expected path into interstellar space.
The DSN will attempt to restore communications by beaming instructions to Voyager 2 telling it to reorientate its antenna now, rather than waiting for October.
Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to have visited four planetary systems (five if you count Earth) and despite increasingly desperate pleas from the astronomical community, is still our only mission to Uranus and Neptune.