Australia down for scheduled maintenance: No talking to Voyager 2 for 11 months

Was it something I said?

Voyager probe illustration

NASA is celebrating the return to full science operations of its ageing Voyager 2 spacecraft by not speaking to the thing for 11 months.

After 48 years of service, the 70-metre-wide radio antenna in Canberra, Australia, is due a bit of TLC and will be undergoing upgrades for almost a year. Voyager 2, which is currently approximately 17 billion kilometres from Earth, is flying in a downward direction relative to Earth's orbital plane and so can only communicate with the Australian site.

While data from Voyager 2 will still be received, engineers will not be able to send commands to the elderly spacecraft until the work is completed.

A special S-band transmitter is needed to communicate with the probe and, alas, the one in Canberra is the only option in the southern hemisphere both powerful enough to reach the distances needed while also running on a frequency that Voyager 2's dated technology can handle.

Part of the Deep Space Network, some parts of the antenna are four decades old and becoming increasingly unreliable, and with upcoming missions to Mars and the Moon, upgrading it has become essential.

Also known as Deep Space Station 43, it was originally built with a 64-metre-diameter antenna between 1969 and 1973, and was available to support the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. The antenna was extended to 70 metres in 1987 in order support Voyager 2's 1989 encounter with Neptune.

While work carries on, the three 34-metre antennas at Canberra will be able to listen for signals from the probe, but cannot send commands. The Voyager team will therefore put the spacecraft into a "quiescent state" and rely on Voyager 2's onboard fault protection to deal with the unexpected.

Work should be completed by 2021. The timing is particularly bad since it comes hot on the heels of a mystery spacecraft issue that shut down science instruments after two relatively high-power systems were left on. The cause was an unexplained delay in onboard command execution.

Engineers were rightly proud of the achievement in restoring Voyager 2 to health. At the risk of anthropomorphising the distant spacecraft more than is entirely healthy, we can but hope no robotic feelings will be hurt by the upcoming silence from Earth. ®

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