With so many space missions currently exploring various planets, moons and other bodies, it may be easy to forget sometimes that a couple older missions, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, are still active and sending back data from the outermost reaches of our Solar System.
But very soon, Voyager 2 will be unable to receive radio commands from Earth for about 11 months. This is not due to a problem with the spacecraft, but rather because the Deep Space Network’s 70-meter-wide (230-feet-wide) radio antenna (“DSS43”) in Canberra, Australia will be undergoing needed upgrades.
The Deep Space Network (DSN) is the primary means of contact between the two Voyagers and Earth.
The interruption is only one-way however. Even though Voyager 2 won’t be able to receive commands, it can still send data back to Earth. For the 11 months, Voyager 2 will become “quiet” so it can still transmit valuable science data to Earth even though none of Canberra’s three radio dishes will be able to send commands to the spacecraft.
The DSN is being upgraded largely due to old age; it has been used to communicate with spacecraft for about 48 years now. Some of the transmitters are now 40 years old and becoming more prone to problems. One particular S-band transmitter is used to send commands to Voyager 2 and the Canberra antenna is the only antenna of its kind in the southern hemisphere. This makes upgrading the equipment all the more necessary, to avoid other unplanned outages. Canberra is one of three antennas in the DSN, with the other located in California and Spain.
Communication with the network is normally 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.
Due to Voyager’s location, “south” of Earth’s orbital plane, it can only communicate with the Canberra antenna.
The downtime follows soon after Voyager 2’s return to normal operations after an incident where the spacecraft accidentally overdrew its power supply last January. This caused the temporary turning off of the spacecraft’s science instruments.
For the time being, the DSN sites in California and Spain will have to take on more of the workload.
“Obviously, the 11 months of repairs puts more constraints on the other DSN sites,” said Jeff Berner, Deep Space Network’s chief engineer. “But the advantage is that when we come back, the Canberra antenna will be much more reliable.”
Canberra being offline for almost the next year is unfortunate, but necessary, and the upgrades will certainly be worth it. The upgrades will add newer state-of-the-art technology not only for Voyager, but other space missions as well.
“The maintenance is needed to support the missions that NASA is developing and launching in the future, as well as supporting the missions that are operating right now,” said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager and JPL Director for the Interplanetary Network.
NASA’s Perseverance (Mars 2020) rover mission will be able to make use of the upgrades after it launches this coming July, as well as the planned Artemis crewed missions back to the Moon later this decade.
“We put the spacecraft back into a state where it will be just fine, assuming that everything goes normally with it during the time that the antenna is down,” said Dodd. “If things don’t go normally – which is always a possibility, especially with an aging spacecraft – then the onboard fault protection that’s there can handle the situation.”
Even though the Perseverance rover mission is launching in July, the upgrades to the Canberra radio dish should be completed by the time it lands on Mars in February 2021. That’s good news for this important mission, which will search for evidence of ancient microbial life.
Voyager 2 is currently more than 11 billion miles (17 billion kilometers) from Earth and entered interstellar space on Dec. 10, 2018. It, along with Voyager 1, is one of the longest-running space missions ever, since being launched from Cape Canaveral way back on Aug. 20, 1977. Some keys firsts of the mission include:
- Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to study all four of the Solar System’s giant planets at close range.
- Voyager 2 discovered a 14th moon at Jupiter.
- Voyager 2 was the first human-made object to fly past Uranus.
- At Uranus, Voyager 2 discovered 10 new moons and two new rings.
- Voyager 2 was the first human-made object to fly by Neptune.
- At Neptune, Voyager 2 discovered five moons, four rings, and a “Great Dark Spot.”
The Canberra upgrades, while a bit disruptive in the short-term, will be a great improvement to the aging radio telescope, and will not only improve communications with Voyager 2, but other upcoming exciting space missions as well.
For more information about Voyager 2, see the mission website.
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