Voyager 2 probe is still working after ‘heartbeat’ signal detected

2 Aug 2023

Concept of the Voyager 2. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

From a whopping 20bn km away, the Voyager 2 is still sending out signals from its interstellar journey after a brief mishap caused a blip in communications.

NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft has sent home what is being called a heartbeat signal after losing communication with Earth more than a week ago.

While the signal, technically known as a carrier signal, is too faint for data to be extracted from it, its detection by the NASA Deep Space Network (DSN) confirms that the spacecraft is still operating.

The space agency revealed last week that a “series of planned commands” sent on 21 July to the Voyager 2 nearly 20bn kilometres away “inadvertently” caused the antenna to point 2 degrees away from Earth, causing a pause in communications between the spacecraft and DSN antennae.

This means that NASA is no longer receiving data from Voyager 2, which has been in operation for nearly 46 years, and the spacecraft is also unable to receive commands from ground control.

However, the agency confirmed that the probe is programmed to reset its orientation multiple times each year to keep its antenna pointing at Earth and that the next reset will occur on 15 October, which should enable communication to resume.

“The mission team expects Voyager 2 to remain on its planned trajectory during the quiet period,” NASA wrote in its announcement last week.

In an update yesterday (1 August), NASA said there is a plan for the interim period. A DSN antenna will be used to “shout” a command to Voyager 2 to turn its antenna. In case this does not work, the team will revert to the original plan and wait for the spacecraft to reorient.

“We enlisted the help of the DSN and Radio Science groups to help to see if we could hear a signal from Voyager 2,” said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager’s project manager on Tuesday.

“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.”

Voyager 2, as its name suggests, is the second of two Voyager missions that were launched by NASA in 1977 to study the plants in what is known as the outer solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

After making significant discoveries about the gas giants and their moons, the two Voyagers continued their journeys and eventually reached interstellar space – meaning they are out of our solar system.

Voyager 1 is nearly 24bn kilometres away from Earth, the furthest of any human-made spacecraft, and is still sending data back home.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic