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Earth to Voyager 2: After a yr within the darkness, we are able to speak to you once more

Written by Shannon Stirone

Within the practically 44 years since NASA launched Voyager 2, the spacecraft has gone past the frontiers of human exploration by visiting Uranus, Neptune and, finally, interstellar area.

In March, the company was compelled to close down its solely technique of reaching 12 billion miles throughout the heavens to this robotic trailblazer. On Friday, Earth’s haunting silence will come to an finish as NASA switches that communications channel again on, restoring humanity’s capacity to say howdy to its distant explorer.

Due to the course by which it’s flying out of the photo voltaic system, Voyager 2 can solely obtain instructions from Earth by way of one antenna in all the world. It’s referred to as DSS 43 and it’s in Canberra, Australia. It’s a part of the Deep Area Community, or DSN, which together with stations in California and Spain, is how NASA and allied area companies keep in contact with the armada of robotic spacecraft exploring every little thing from the solar’s corona to the areas of the Kuiper belt past the orbit of Pluto. (Voyager 2’s twin, Voyager 1, is ready to talk with the opposite two stations.)

A round-trip communication with Voyager 2 takes about 35 hours — 17 hours and 35 minutes every approach.

DSS 43 is a 70-meter dish that has been working since 1973. It was lengthy overdue for upgrades, particularly with new robotic missions headed to Mars this yr and much more getting ready to launch to review different worlds within the months and years to come back. So final yr, the dish was switched off and dismantled, although the shutdown posed appreciable danger to the geriatric Voyager 2 probe.

Like every little thing in 2020, what would have been a traditional antenna improve was something however. Often, the mission’s managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California would ship about 30 consultants to supervise the dish’s makeover. However restrictions imposed through the COVID-19 pandemic lowered the crew to 4.

On the Canberra station, the crew engaged on the improve needed to be separated into three smaller groups, stated Glen Nagle, outreach supervisor on the Canberra Deep Area Communication Advanced.

“So there was always a backup team in case anybody got sick, and you could put that team in isolation, and the other team could come in and cover for them,” he stated.

Additionally they break up the groups into morning and night shifts to make sure social distancing.

NASA VOYAGER 2 A photograph offered by NASA reveals the “Sounds of Earth” document being mounted on the Voyager 2 spacecraft earlier than its launch in 1977 on the Kennedy Area Heart in Florida. NASA’s sole technique of sending instructions to the distant area probe, launched 44 years in the past, is being restored on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. (NASA by way of The New York Occasions)

Whereas Voyager 2 was capable of name house on the Canberra website’s smaller dishes through the shutdown, none of them might ship instructions to the probe. If something had gone improper aboard the probe over the last yr, NASA would have been powerless to repair it.

Though NASA has been unable to ship full instructions to Voyager 2, it did ship one take a look at message to the spacecraft on the finish of October when the antenna was principally reassembled. A tool on board referred to as the command loss timer, one thing like a lifeless man’s change, is used to assist the spacecraft decide whether or not it has misplaced contact with Earth and may defend itself by going right into a type of digital slumber.

The October take a look at reset the timer and efficiently informed the spacecraft to proceed working.

“I think there was probably a big sigh of relief there,” Nagle stated. “And we were very pleased to be able to confirm that the spacecraft was still talking to us.”

The work received excessive marks from NASA officers in the USA.

“The DSN folks in Canberra did a remarkable job under the pandemic conditions just to upgrade DSS 43,” stated Suzanne Dodd, the Voyager mission mission supervisor and director of the Interplanetary Community Directorate on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “I’ve got 100% confidence in that antenna, that it will operate just fine for a few more decades. Long past when the Voyagers are done.”

Each Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 maintain the information for the farthest a spacecraft has ever traveled and for the longest working mission. Voyager 2 has had a couple of hiccups over time, however it’s nonetheless feeling its approach round at the hours of darkness, making discoveries in regards to the boundaries that separate our photo voltaic system from the remainder of the Milky Manner galaxy.

“I’ve seen scientists whose backgrounds are in astrophysics now looking at Voyager data and trying to match that up with data they have from ground-based telescopes or other space-based telescopes,” Dodd stated. “That’s kind of exciting to go from a planetary mission to the heliophysics mission and now, practically into an astrophysics mission.”

Whereas Voyager 2 retains chugging alongside, Dodd and her colleagues are getting ready to modify off one in every of its scientific sensors, the Low Power Charged Particle instrument. Doing so will be sure that the spacecraft’s restricted energy provide can preserve its different techniques, significantly its communications antenna, heat sufficient to operate.

Whereas that may cut back the spacecraft’s scientific output, the principle aim now could be longevity.

“The challenge is not in the new technology, or the great discoveries,” Dodd stated. “The challenge is in keeping it operating as long as possible and returning the science data as long as possible.”

The crew estimates that each spacecraft can function for one more 4 to eight years, and NASA final yr granted the crew three extra years of flying time.

“The spacecraft continues to plug along,” Dodd stated. “It always surprises me.”

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