NASA picks up ‘heartbeat’ from the Voyager 2 spacecraft

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NASA has received a signal from the Voyager 2 spacecraft that it accidentally lost contact with on July 21.

Communications with the famous spacecraft, which launched in 1977 and is currently around 12.4 billion miles (19.9 billion kilometers) from Earth, were cut after NASA “inadvertently” sent it a command that caused its antenna to point 2 degrees away from Earth.

It means that Voyager 2 is seemingly unable to receive commands or transmit data back to mission controllers on Earth.

NASA said this week that contact should be reestablished in October when Voyager 2 reorients itself as part of a regular maneuver. But there’s now hope that the communication link could be restored much sooner.

The space agency revealed on Tuesday that during its regular scan of the sky, its Deep Space Network managed to receive a signal — described as “a bit like hearing the spacecraft’s heartbeat’” — from Voyager 2, confirming that the spacecraft is still broadcasting as expected.

Engineers are now planning to send a command to Voyager 2 to try to make it point the antenna back toward Earth. “If that does not work, we’ll have to wait until October, when the spacecraft’s onboard software automatically tells it to reset its direction,” NASA said.

Earth to Voyager… 📡
The Deep Space Network has picked up a carrier signal from @NASAVoyager 2 during its regular scan of the sky. A bit like hearing the spacecraft's “heartbeat," it confirms the spacecraft is still broadcasting, which engineers expected.

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) August 1, 2023

Commenting on the unfolding situation, Suzanne Dodd, Voyager’s project manager, said: “We enlisted the help of the [Deep Space Network] and Radio Science groups to help to see if we could hear a signal from Voyager 2. This was successful in that we see the ‘heartbeat’ signal from the spacecraft. So, we know the spacecraft is alive and operating. This buoyed our spirits.”

Voyager 2 has been hurtling away from Earth for the last 46 years. In 1998, engineers switched off the spacecraft’s nonessential instruments so that it could save power. It’s thought that data from at least some of the still-functioning instruments will be able to be received until at least 2025, though this of course depends on the resumption of regular communication.

Voyager 2 launched just a few months before Voyager 1, which is still operational and in touch with NASA. Both spacecraft are exploring where nothing from Earth has flown before.

In August 2012, Voyager 1 made history when it entered into interstellar space, followed by Voyager 2 in November 2018.

The primary mission focused on exploration of Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 went on to take a close look at Uranus and Neptune, and is the only spacecraft to have ever visited these outer planets. It’s now set to explore the outermost edge of the sun’s domain, and further still. We’re just hoping it can reconnect with Earth so that it send back its discoveries.

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