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Earth to Voyager 2: After a Year in the Darkness, We Can Talk to You Again

NASA’s sole means of sending commands to the distant space probe, launched 44 years ago, is being restored on Friday.

At the Canberra station, the crew working on the upgrade had to be separated into three smaller teams, said Glen Nagle, outreach manager at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. “So there was always a backup team in case anybody got sick, and you could put that team in isolation, and the other team could come in and cover for them.” They also split the teams into morning and evening shifts to ensure social distancing.

While Voyager 2 was able to call home on the Canberra site’s smaller dishes during the shutdown, none of them could send commands to the probe. If anything had gone wrong aboard the probe during the last year, NASA would have been powerless to fix it.

Although NASA has been unable to send full commands to Voyager 2, it did send one test message to the spacecraft at the end of October when the antenna was mostly reassembled. A device on board called the command loss timer, something like a dead man’s switch, is used to help the spacecraft determine whether it’s lost contact with Earth and should protect itself by going into a form of electronic slumber. The October test reset the timer, and successfully told the spacecraft to continue operating.

“I think there was probably a big sigh of relief there,” Mr. Nagle said. “And we were very pleased to be able to confirm that the spacecraft was still talking to us.”

The work got high marks from NASA officials in the United States.

“The DSN folks in Canberra did a remarkable job under the pandemic conditions just to upgrade DSS 43,” said Suzanne Dodd, the Voyager mission project manager and director of the Interplanetary Network Directorate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “I’ve got 100 percent confidence in that antenna, that it will operate just fine for a few more decades. Long past when the Voyagers are done.”

“I’ve seen scientists whose backgrounds are in astrophysics now looking at Voyager data and trying to match that up with data they have from ground-based telescopes or other space-based telescopes,” Ms. Dodd said. “That’s kind of exciting to go from a planetary mission to the heliophysics mission and now, practically into an astrophysics mission.”

While Voyager 2 keeps chugging along, Ms. Dodd and her colleagues are preparing to switch off the heater for one of its scientific sensors, the Low Energy Charged Particle instrument. Doing so will ensure that the spacecraft’s limited power supply can keep its other systems, particularly its communications antenna, warm enough to function.

While Ms. Dodd thinks taking such steps could reduce the spacecraft’s scientific output, the main goal now is longevity.

“The challenge is not in the new technology, or the great discoveries,” Ms. Dodd said. “The challenge is in keeping it operating as long as possible, and returning the science data as long as possible.”

The team estimates that both spacecraft can operate for another four to eight years, and NASA last year granted the team three more years of flying time.

“The spacecraft continues to plug along,” Ms. Dodd said. “It always surprises me.”

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Category: Technology

Source: New York Times

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