After losing contact with the far-away Voyager 2 probe in July, NASA has picked up a “heartbeat signal” from the 46-year-old spacecraft, Marcia Dunn reports for the Associated Press (AP).
Though the agency has not reestablished communication with the craft, the signal is a positive indication that it’s alive and operating in deep space. It has “buoyed our spirits,” Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd tells the AP.
On July 21, NASA sent a series of planned commands to Voyager 2, which accidentally caused its antenna to shift two degrees away from Earth. This severed communications between the distant spacecraft and NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), an array of three radio antenna complexes equidistant from each other, located near Canberra, Australia; Madrid, Spain; and Barstow, California.
Until the agency gets back in touch with the probe, it cannot receive commands, and it can’t send data back to scientists on the ground.
“[Glitches] happen from time to time,” Glen Nagle, education and outreach manager at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, tells Julian Fell and Tahlia Roy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “It’s always interesting when you have a spacecraft which is coming up to its 46th anniversary in a space mission only designed to last 12 years… It is aging and getting farther away from us every single day. We do know we’ll lose contact with the spacecraft sometime toward the end of this decade.”
Earth to Voyager...— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) August 1, 2023
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. https://t.co/tPcCyjMjJY
Voyager 2 and its car-sized twin, Voyager 1, were both launched in 1977 to explore Jupiter and Saturn. After making a series of discoveries—such as spotting active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io—the mission was extended, per NASA. Voyager 2 headed toward Uranus, where it discovered 11 previously unknown moons, and then made a close approach of Neptune in 1989. It is still the only spacecraft to have explored those two outer planets.
In 1990, Voyager 1 took the iconic Pale Blue Dot photograph of Earth as it sped away from the solar system. Voyager 1 entered interstellar space (the region beyond where the sun’s particles reach) in 2012, and Voyager 2 followed suit in 2018.
“I’m amazed at how long both of these spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, have been able to keep going and return unique science about new places that no spacecraft has visited before,” Linda Spilker, a Voyager project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Ramin Skibba of Wired last year. “And now they’ve become interstellar travelers. How cool is that?”
Now, Voyager 1 is almost 14.9 billion miles away from Earth, and Voyager 2 is nearly 12.4 billion miles away. But the probes are aging—their thrusters are degrading and power efficiency is dropping. Scientists expect to shut down one of Voyager 2’s five scientific instruments in 2026. Voyager 1 is already operating with one fewer instrument, as one failed earlier in the mission. Both Voyagers carry a golden record, a phonograph record that contains sounds and images intended to communicate information about life on Earth to extraterrestrials.
All hope is not lost for Voyager 2—the craft is programmed to reorient itself a few times per year, with the next reorientation scheduled for October. This should enable communication to continue, but NASA plans to send out signals before then to try to catch the probe’s attention.
“That is a long time to wait, so we’ll try sending up commands several times,” Dodd tells the AP.