Nasa has had a bit of a run in with the law of unintended consequences after a series of commands sent to its legendary spacecraft Voyager 2 caused the antenna to point away from Earth – severing communications.
Launched on August 20, 1977, Voyager 2 is currently 12.3 billion miles from Earth, roaming interstellar space and reporting back on its finds.
However, planned commands transmitted to the spacecraft have left it temporarily cut-off from Nasa’s Deep Space Network (DSN). Voyager 2 is now flying solo as it cannot receive further communications sent from Earth, and data sent by the spacecraft is no longer reaching the DSN.
All is not lost however, with the radio silence expected to last only a couple of months thanks to the clever people at Nasa and their back-up plans.
Voyager 2 is programmed to reset its orientation multiple times each year to ensure its antenna is pointing Earthward, and is expected to do so again on October 15 – after which the team hopes communications will be restored.
In a statement, the mission team said it expects Voyager 2 to remain on its planned trajectory while out of contact.
It is not the first time Voyager 2 has encountered comms trouble on its lengthy mission. In April 1978 the spacecraft’s primary radio receiver failed, and it has been operating on its backup ever since.
Blasting off from Cape Canaveral almost 46 years ago, Voyager 2 and its twin Voyager 1 were launched in order to take advantage of a rare planetary alignment that allowed engineers at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to fly past Jupiter and use its gravity to bend their trajectories to visit Saturn, repeating the process to also visit Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.
In addition to sending back thousands of images of our neighbouring planets, the pair have also visited a number of their moons – and discovered many more. Voyager 2 identified a 14th moon around Jupiter, discovered 10 new moons at Uranus and five new moons at Neptune.
Voyager 2’s flypast of Neptune’s large moon, Triton, was the last solid object it explored before continuing its lonely journey from Earth, travelling at 9.6 miles per second.
On November 5, 2018, Voyager 2 officially left the solar system, crossing the threshold into interstellar space.
In 1998, Voyager 1 became the most distant human made object in space, passing the Pioneer 10 spacecraft.
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