NASA detects 'heartbeat' signal from Voyager 2 beyond the solar system

On July 21, NASA mistakenly sent a series of commands to the probe that tilted its antenna away from Earth. 
Mrigakshi Dixit
An artist's impression of Voyager 2.
An artist's impression of Voyager 2.


After weeks of silence, NASA has picked up a “heartbeat signal” from Voyager 2 floating billions of miles away in interstellar space.

On July 21, NASA mistakenly sent a series of commands to the probe that tilted its antenna merely two degrees away from Earth. 

The communication between the spacecraft and ground-based antennas at NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) in Canberra, Australia, was disrupted by this little shift in orientation. 

Ever since, the mission control team has been attempting to re-establish contact with Voyager 2 probe. 

“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,” Suzanne Dodd, Voyager’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California told AFP

“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,” Dodd added.

While the heartbeat, or carrier signal, has assured the team that the probe is still operational, its antenna still points away from Earth. 

The JPL flight controllers will make an effort to send a fresh set of commands to realign Voyager 2's antenna towards Earth. However, Dodd mentioned that the probability of the command's success is not very high.

If the command does not reach Voyager 2, they will have to wait until October for the spacecraft to automatically reset.

The Voyager 2 software is programmed to automatically reset its orientation at specific times of the year. This allows the spacecraft to keep its antennae pointed toward the Earth at all times. The next automatic re-orientation will take place on October 15.

Although there is a considerable wait until October 15, NASA will continue to send commands to the spacecraft to establish contact as soon as possible.

Voyager 2 located 12.3 billion miles away

Voyager 2 is now sailing deep into interstellar space at a whopping distance of 12.3 billion miles (19.9 billion kilometers) away from Earth.

At that distance, the signal takes approximately 18.5 hours to travel one way across the solar system to the spacecraft.

Voyager 2 and its identical twin, Voyager 1, were launched into space just a few weeks apart in 1977. 

Voyager 1 is currently 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) beyond Earth, making it humanity’s first spacecraft to enter interstellar space in 2012. The spacecraft continues to function normally and maintains communication with the ground team.

In December 2018, Voyager 2 exited the Sun's protective magnetic bubble, known as the heliosphere. It explored and collected data on the outer planets, including Jupiter and Saturn before departing our solar system. It was also the first spacecraft to visit Uranus and Neptune on its way to interstellar space.

Recently, NASA announced that the Voyager 2 spacecraft's mission will be extended. The space agency will utilize backup power to keep all of Voyager 2's research equipment operational until 2026.

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