Fault at the edge of the Solar System: NASA lost contact with Voyager 2

NASA lost contact with the Voyager 2 spacecraft at least until mid-October. The reason for the emergency was the deviation of the antenna of the spacecraft from the desired position due to an erroneous command. 

A half-century-long space journey

Voyager 2 was launched on August 20, 1977. In 1979, it visited Jupiter, two years later it made a flyby of Saturn, after which it headed to the ice giants Uranus and Neptune, in the vicinity of which it visited in 1986 and 1989. To this day, it remains the only spacecraft in history to explore these two planets at close range.

Voyager at Saturn in the artist’s image. Source: MacRebisz

But its incredible mission did not end there. Voyager 2 continued its journey, forever taking it beyond the Solar System. In 2018, it became the second ever functioning spacecraft to enter interstellar space.

Despite the fact that the nominal service life of Voyager 2 was only 4 years, it remained operational, still maintaining communication with the Earth and transmitting data from its instruments. The main problem for the space veteran was energy. Over the years, its radioisotope power source generates less and less energy, forcing NASA to gradually turn off its instruments. But recently, engineers have found a way to give Voyager 2 a few extra years of life by turning off one of the mechanisms. It was expected that this would allow the spacecraft to work at least until 2026.

Loss of communication with Voyager 2

Communication with Voyager 2 was lost on July 21, 2023, when it was at a distance of 133 AU (19.9 billion km) from Earth. According to the experts of the mission support group, this happened due to a set of commands given to it, one of which turned out to be erroneous. After completing it, the spacecraft changed its orientation. This led to the fact that its antenna deviated from the communication line with the Earth by two degrees. This turned out to be enough for Voyager 2 to lose the ability to both receive commands and transmit the collected information.

The Voyager spacecraft in the artist’s image. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The good news is that just in case of such a situation, Voyager 2 is programmed to “reset” its orientation several times a year so that its antenna always remains directed towards the Earth. The next reset will take place on October 15. If everything goes well, NASA will restore contact with the spacecraft on this day. Engineers hope that during the radio silence with Voyager 2, no unforeseen situations will occur that can require intervention from Earth.

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