Election Day may have us tied up in anxious knots today. But we can also take solace in the fact that nearly 12 billion miles away, one of humanity’s greatest achievements is twinkling back at us, and our understanding of the mysteries of the universe continues to unfold.
After a seven-month hiatus without being able to command Voyager 2, NASA is now able to communicate new directions and procedures to the craft, the agency announced.
The Voyager 2 space probe, launched in August 1977, has been traveling outward for more than 43 years visiting Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
Repairs and upgrades by the team at NASA have been underway since mid-March at Deep Space Station 43 in Canberra, Australia. That station is the only antenna in the world capable of communicating with the probe. That’s due to Voyager 2’s position in deep space, the antenna’s location in the Southern Hemisphere and the fact that the antenna can interface with the probe’s 1970s technology.
Operators were making needed repairs to its dish, which measures 70 meters, or 230 feet across. One of its two radio transmitters hadn’t been upgraded in 47 years.
Mission operators on Thursday night sent a test signal to Voyager 2, which is now in interstellar space. The craft pinged back on Monday morning. Voyager 2 acknowledged the signal and executed the command that mission controllers had sent.
“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 (which house portions of the antenna receivers) at the center of the dish that extend above the rim,” said Brad Arnold, project manager for the Deep Space Network at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
“This test communication with Voyager 2 definitely tells us that things are on track with the work we’re doing,” he added in the news release.
The upgrades are expected to be fully completed in February 2021.
In interstellar space
Voyager 2 became the second human-made craft to cross into interstellar space in 2018, after its twin Voyager 1 accomplished that feat in 2012.
Though mission operators couldn’t issue commands to Voyager 2 for a time period about as long as the coronavirus pandemic, they have continued to receive sensor data from the probe. Both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are just outside the heliosphere, a bubble of magnetic fields and particles created by the sun.
“We’ve always been talking to the spacecraft. We’ve been doing that daily,” said Suzanne Dodd, the director of JPL’s Interplanetary Network Directorate, and project manager for the Voyager Interstellar Mission. “We can see the health of it. If it wasn’t healthy, we would have known.”
However, during the repairs, if there had been an issue with the craft, NASA didn’t have a way to tell it quickly to adjust course.
Because Voyager 1 and 2’s onboard systems are so old, they have 200,000 times less memory than a smartphone, she explained. That primitive technology, with less complexity, could be a boon to the probe’s longevity, more than four decades strong.
“That’s probably one of the reasons they’ve lasted this long, just because they’re so simple,” she said. “The Voyagers have an excellent track record. The spacecrafts are remarkably resilient.”
That resilience enables humanity to keep getting new information about the outer edges of our solar system. And that data is a reminder that beyond tribe and class and ideology and political party, we’re all part of something infinitely magnificent.
From Voyager 2’s perspective looking back on us, all of our struggles are infinitesimal as we wait for election results.
“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world,” legendary astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in his book “Pale Blue Dot” in 1994.
“To me it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”