Currently situated a whopping 11.6 billion miles from Earth, Voyager 2 is now so far away that sending and receiving messages to and from the spacecraft requires some very specific hardware.
There is only one radio dish on Earth capable of sending commands to the probe – Deep Space Station 43 in Canberra, Australia – which is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) – a collection of radio antennas situated around the world that are used to contact spacecraft beyond the Moon.
For the last seven months, this huge 70-meter-wide radio dish had been offline for repairs and upgrades, meaning that NASA was effectively out of contact with Voyager 2 during that time.
Now though, with the dish back online, the space agency has been able to successfully send a series of commands to the spacecraft and has also received a confirmation response in return.
“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,” said 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.”
Launched in 1977, both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have traveled further from the Earth than any other man-made object in history and remain fully operational despite 40 years of traveling through space.
Their original mission to visit the four gas giants was made possible by a rare planetary configuration that happens only once every 175 years – an opportunity that NASA couldn’t afford to miss.
The fact that both probes have kept going for so long is nothing if not remarkable.