NASA's Voyager 2 receives first commands since March, sends back a hello

We haven't been able to talk to the spacecraft since before the pandemic.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
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The Voyager 2 probe is some 11.6 billion miles from home but it's still performing its job admirably.


The Voyager 2 probe, one of NASA's most well-traveled spacecraft, has been unable to communicate with Earth for the past eight months. Voyager 2 has been wandering alone at the edge of interstellar space, gathering data some 11.6 billion miles from Earth and sending it back to us. 

But we haven't been able to pick up the phone and call back.

The only radio antenna that can communicate with the probe, Deep Space Station 43 (DSS43) in Australia, has been offline while NASA completes a series of hardware upgrades. Some of the transmitters on DSS43 haven't been replaced for over 47 years, according to NASA. To test new hardware, the dish pinged Voyager 2 on Oct. 29 with a few commands. It was the first time since mid-March that a signal was beamed to the spacecraft.

And because the probe is so far away, the communication team had to wait over 34 hours for a reply. 

Sure enough, Voyager 2 received the commands with no problems and sent back a "hello."

Fortunately, it appears Voyager 2 remains blissfully unaware of all the terrible things that have occurred on Earth since March.

NASA's Deep Space Network allows Earth-bound scientists to communicate with spacecraft and rovers across the solar system. The network consists of three huge telescopes located in the US, Spain and Australia. 

But the US and Spanish telescopes are unable to communicate with Voyager 2 because of its trajectory. When the probe passed by Triton, a moon of Neptune, it was shot out of the solar system's plane. If you think of the solar system like a plate, the probe is like a pea that rolled around a potato and off the side and started traveling toward the floor. From that position, the Northern Hemisphere telescopes can't send a signal -- but DSS43 can. 

With the cosmic call, engineers and scientists can be confident the hardware upgrades haven't messed with our ability to communicate with deep space probes. 

"This test communication with Voyager 2 definitely tells us that things are on track with the work we're doing," said Brad Arnold, Deep Space Network project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. The upgrades are scheduled to be completed by 2021.

Although the probe is now 43 years old, it just keeps on truckin'. A year ago, Voyager 2 scientists published new data collected by the probe as it passed into interstellar space. Earlier this year, before DSS43 was taken offline, Voyager 2 suffered a glitch that shut down its science instruments but it was quickly back online and ready to continue performing its experiments.