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After a 12.3-billion-mile 'shout,' NASA regains full contact with Voyager 2

A NASA image of one of the twin Voyager space probes. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory lost contact with Voyager 2 on July 21 after mistakenly pointing its antenna 2 degrees away from Earth.
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A NASA image of one of the twin Voyager space probes. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory lost contact with Voyager 2 on July 21 after mistakenly pointing its antenna 2 degrees away from Earth.

NASA has detected a signal from Voyager 2 after nearly two weeks of silence from the interstellar spacecraft.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said on Tuesday that a series of ground antennas, part of the Deep Space Network, had registered a carrier signal from Voyager 2 on Tuesday.

"A bit like hearing the spacecraft's 'heartbeat,' it confirms the spacecraft is still broadcasting, which engineers expected," JPL wrote in a tweet.

NASA said it lost contact with Voyager 2, which is traveling 12.3 billion miles away from Earth, on Friday after "a series of planned commands" inadvertently caused the craft to turn its antenna 2 degrees away from the direction of its home planet.

What might seem like a slight error had big consequences: NASA said it wouldn't be able to communicate with the craft until October, when the satellite would go through one of its routine repositioning steps.

Now that the scientists know Voyager 2 is still broadcasting, engineers will try to send the spacecraft a command to point its antenna back towards Earth. But program manager Suzanne Dodd told the Associated Press that they're not too hopeful this step will work.

"That is a long time to wait, so we'll try sending up commands several times" before October, Dodd said.

Even if Voyager 2 fails to re-establish communications until fall, the engineers expect it to stay moving on its planned trajectory on the edge of the solar system.

Voyager 2 traveled past Uranus and into interstellar space in Dec. 2018 — more than 40 years since it first launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. To this day, Voyager 2 remains only one of two human-made objects to have ever flown past Uranus.

Its primary mission was to study the outer solar system, and already, Voyager 2 has proved its status as a planetary pioneer. Equipped with several imaging instruments, the spacecraft is credited with documenting the discovery of 16 new moons, six new rings and Neptune's "Great Dark Spot."

Voyager 2 is also carrying some precious cargo, like a message in a bottle, should it find itself as the subject of another world's discovery:A golden record, containing a variety of natural sounds, greetings in 55 languages and a 90-minute selection of music.

Last month's command mix-up means Voyager 2 is not able to transmit data back to Earth, but it also foreshadows the craft's inevitable end an estimated three years from now.

"Eventually, there will not be enough electricity to power even one instrument," reads a NASA page documenting the spacecraft's travels. "Then, Voyager 2 will silently continue its eternal journey among the stars."

Voyager 2's sister spacecraft, Voyager 1, meanwhile, is still broadcasting and transmitting data just fine from a slightly further vantage point of 15 billion miles away.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Corrected: August 3, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this article implied that Voyager 2 flew past Uranus in 2018 when, in fact, the spacecraft concluded its encounter with the planet and started heading toward Neptune in 1986. Voyager 2 entered interstellar space in November 2018.
Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.
Ayana Archie