NASA’s mission operators have sent a series of command to NASA’s Voyager 2 from the first time since March. The spacecraft, currently 11.6 billion miles away from the Earth in the southern hemisphere has been flying solo ever since the radio antenna that used to connect to it has been offline.
A call to Voyager 2 through the 70 meter wide antenna was confirmed by a signal, as the spacecraft continued to follow commands. The call was made to test the Deep Space Station 43’s new hardware. The DSS43 is the only dish that can connect to Voyager 2. Since the dish went offline, operators have only been able to receive updates from Voyager 2 but were unable to command.
The DSS43 consists of two radio transmitters, one of which hasn’t been replaced in 47 years. Updates were made to the transmitters, including heating and cooling equipment, power supply equipment, and other necessary electronics. NASA states that the successful call to Voyager 2 is an indication that the upgraded DSS43 will be back online in February 2021.
“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. This test communication with Voyager 2 definitely tells us that things are on track with the work we’re doing”, stated Brad Arnold, the DSN project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California.
The dish, located in Canberra, Australia, is a part of NASA’s Deep Space Network. The DSN consists of multiple radio installations across the globe used to communicate with spacecrafts placed beyond the moon. While the antennae is placed strategically to contact any spacecraft in line of it, Voyager 2 is an exception. The craft flew over Neptune’s North Pole in 1989, this deflected it southwards from the line of planets. The craft has been moving in that direction ever since, unable to connect with any antenna in the northern hemisphere.
DSS43 is the only available dish in the southern hemisphere for Voyager 2 to connect to. In the months that DSS43 was unable to connect to craft, three 34 meter wide radio antennas stationed at Canberra were used for the craft to send signals to the Earth.
Although DSS43 was launched five years before the launch of Voyager 2, in 1972, and has witnessed several updates; engineers at NASA claim that the current updates are the most significant ones in 30 years. NASA also claims that the repairs made will benefit other systems, including the Mars Perseverance Rover, estimated to land on Mars on Feb 18, 2021. It will also play a significant role in the moon missions and contribute in communication for the manned Artemis missions.
“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. 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”, stated Philip Baldwin, operations manager for NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Program.
Voyager 2 was launched in 1977 and has travelled billions of miles since then.