All mothers worry about their children when they’re a long way from home, and NASA is no exception. It has two adult kids who have been heading away from Earth since 1977 and, despite having left the solar system, was still getting regular calls from both until 11 months ago when the ancient phone one used for communications needed to be upgraded. Could Mama go that long without hearing from her precious 43-year-old baby? Could the baby survive without getting advice and encouragement from Mom?
“On Oct. 29, mission operators sent a series of commands to NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft for the first time since mid-March. The spacecraft has been flying solo while the 70-meter-wide (230-foot-wide) radio antenna used to talk to it has been offline for repairs and upgrades. Voyager 2 returned a signal confirming it had received the "call" and executed the commands without issue.”
If you haven’t figured it out yet, we’re talking about Voyager 2, currently 11.6 billion miles from Earth, and the Deep Space Station 43 in Canberra, Australia. When it went online in 1973, DSS-43 was the go-to antenna for long-distance communications with space missions. It was upgraded in 1987 in order to better communicate with Voyager 2 during its critical close flyby of Neptune's moon Triton in 1989. That’s where the first problem began. Voyager 2 had to fly over Neptune’s north pole, which changed its trajectory southward and put it completely out of the line of sight with radio antennas in the Northern Hemisphere. That made DSS-43 the only place where calls could be made to the probe. (FYI -- Voyager 1 took a different trajectory past Saturn and can communicate via two antennas in the Northern Hemisphere.)
“Among the upgrades to DSS43, as the dish is known, are two new radio transmitters. One of them, which is used to talk with Voyager 2, hasn't been replaced in over 47 years. Engineers have also upgraded heating and cooling equipment, power supply equipment, and other electronics needed to run the new transmitters.”
NASA notes that this is a much-needed refurb, but DSS-43 was working when it began. The refurb covered the entire antenna from the pedestal to the feedcones in the center of the dish. The test on October 29 was a checkpoint to make sure everything was operational up to this point and with the successful transmission, the upgrade can continue until the expected completion in February 2021.
So, what did Mom and her baby talk about? NASA would only say that Voyager 2 received its commands and returned a signal confirming it executed them without complaining. What were the commands? Wear clean underwear? Don’t talk to strangers? Would it kill you to call more often?
You’re never too old to call your mother.