NASA is about to stop talking to Voyager 2 for almost a year
Nary a month since NASA managed to reboot Voyager 2 after a technical malfunction, it looks like we’re about to lose contact for almost a whole year. The radio antenna that acts as Earth’s sole transmitter to Voyager 2 will soon undergo important upgrades, so for the next 11 months we won’t be able to send commands to The Little Spacecraft That Could.
Communications with Voyager 2 are maintained through the Deep Space Network (DSN). This network is made up of facilities in the US, Spain and Australia, which send and receive information to and from the distant spacecraft – as well as plenty of others.
But because Voyager 2’s trajectory is sending it downwards relative to Earth’s orbital plane, only the Australian facility is currently in a position to send commands to it. And this dish is in dire need of a tune-up.
Located near the country’s capital city of Canberra, the 70-m (230-ft) wide radio antenna has been in service for almost 50 years, with some individual parts pushing 40. That includes the transmitters, which are becoming increasingly unreliable.
So NASA has made the call to begin critical upgrades to extend the life of the facility. It’s inconvenient, of course, but the alternative is much worse – unplanned failures could put the legacy mission in jeopardy.
"Obviously, the 11 months of repairs puts more constraints on the other DSN sites," says Jeff Berner, chief engineer of the DSN. "But the advantage is that when we come back, the Canberra antenna will be much more reliable.”
It won’t mean that Voyager 2 is completely alone for that time, though. The spacecraft will still be able to send data back to Earth. Three other antennas at the Canberra site will be able to pick up the signals, as will those at the American and Spanish facilities. We just won’t be able to respond.
That normally should be fine – but if there’s another fault like the one that occurred in January, NASA won’t be able to troubleshoot the craft. Still, it’s a risk that needs to be taken, especially since the DSN’s services will be required for upcoming missions like Perseverance, the Mars 2020 rover.
The work on the Canberra antenna is expected to be completed by January 2021. Let’s hope Voyager 2 can stay out of trouble until then.
Source: NASA JPL