Election day may have tied us up with anxious us today. But we can also console ourselves with the fact that almost 12 billion kilometers away, one of humanity’s greatest achievements is winking 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 for the spacecraft, the agency announced.
The Voyager 2 space probe, launched in August 1977, was traveling abroad for more than 43 years visiting Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
Repairs and updates by the NASA team have been underway since mid-March at Deep Space Station 43 in Canberra, Australia. This station is the only antenna in the world capable of communicating with the probe. This is due to Voyager 2’s position in deep space, the location of the antenna in the southern hemisphere and the fact that the antenna can interact with the probe’s 1970s technology.
Operators were making the necessary repairs to their antenna, which measures 70 meters or 230 feet in diameter. One of its two radio transmitters had not been updated for 47 years.
The mission operators on Thursday night sent a test signal to Voyager 2, which is now in interstellar space. The ship returned on Monday morning. Voyager 2 recognized the signal and executed the command sent by the mission controllers.
“What makes this task unique is that we are working on all levels of the antenna, from the pedestal at ground level to the feedcones (which house portions of the antenna receivers) in the center of the dish that extend above the edge,” he said. Brad Arnold, project manager for 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 are doing,” he added in the press release.
The updates are expected to be fully completed by February 2021.
In interstellar space
Voyager 2 became the second human-made spacecraft to cross interstellar space in 2018, after its duo Voyager 1 accomplished this feat in 2012.
Although mission operators were unable to issue commands to Voyager 2 for a period of time almost as long as the coronavirus pandemic, they continued to receive data from the probe’s sensor. Both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are outside the heliosphere, a bubble of magnetic fields and particles created by the sun.
“We always talk to the spaceship. We do this daily,” said Suzanne Dodd, director of the JPL Interplanetary Network Board and project manager for the Interstellar Voyager Mission. “We can see the health of it. If it weren’t healthy, we would have known.”
However, during repairs, if there was a problem with the spacecraft, NASA had no way to inform it quickly to adjust the course.
Because Voyager 1 and 2’s onboard systems are so old, they have 200,000 times less memory than a smartphone, she explained. This primitive technology, with less complexity, can be a benefit for the probe’s longevity, with more than four decades of strength.
“This is probably one of the reasons why they lasted so long, just because they are so simple,” she said. “Voyagers have an excellent track record. Spacecraft are remarkably sturdy.”
This resilience allows humanity to continue to obtain new information about the outer edges of our solar system. And this data is a reminder that, in addition to tribe, class, ideology and political party, we are all part of something infinitely magnificent.
From Voyager 2’s point of view, looking at us, all of our struggles are infinitesimal while we wait for the election results.
“Perhaps there is no better demonstration of the madness of human concepts than this distant image of our tiny world,” wrote the legendary astronomer Carl Sagan in his book “Pale Blue Dot” in 1994.
“For me, this underscores our responsibility to treat more gently and preserve and enhance the light blue dot, the only home we know.”
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