NASA is Updating the Australian Radio Dish Used to Command Voyager 2

NASA will spend 11 months to update the radio dish the team on Earth use to program and manage the Voyager 2 spacecraft, which launched in 1977 and arrived in interstellar space in November 2018.

The Australian Radio Dish Needs an Upgrade

The radio dish is located in Australia and measures 230 feet wide (70 meters). Until the work on the massive telescope is done, in January 2021, Voyager 2 will have to protect itself in interstellar space, but it will continue sending data back to Earth. The spacecraft will be able to handle the isolation, according to the mission team members.

“We put the spacecraft back into a state where it will be just fine, assuming that everything goes normally with it during the time that the antenna is down,” Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd, who is also a director of the Interplanetary Network Directorate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement Wednesday, March 4th. “If things don’t go normally — which is always a possibility, especially with an aging spacecraft — then the onboard fault protection that’s there can handle the situation,” Dodd added.

The Australian radio dish is one of the Deep Space Network (DSN) telescopes, the array NASA uses to manage and program its numerous space probes. There are three different DSN sites, one each in California, Spain, and Australia.

Each location has multiple massive antennas; for instance, the Australian complex, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Canberra, has three 111-foot-wide (34 meters) radio dishes. The massive Australian dish has been functioning for 48 years and needs an upgrade, according to NASA officials. The space agency decides to start the process now, with the upgrade scheduled to begin in March, because Voyager 2 recently returned to sending data after it suffered a glitch.

“Obviously, the 11 months of repairs puts more constraints on the other DSN sites,” Jeff Berner, the Deep Space Network’s chief engineer, said. “But the advantage is that when we come back, the Canberra antenna will be much more reliable.”

The First Spacecraft to Leave the Heliosphere

The upgrade will enhance communications with numerous NASA probes, not just Voyager 2, the statement said. For instance, the work will help the space agency’s Mars 2020 rover, which is set to take off this summer, as well as the Artemis program of manned lunar missions, which plans to land two astronauts close to the Moon‘s south pole in 2024.

“The maintenance is needed to support the missions that NASA is developing and launching in the future, as well as supporting the missions that are operating right now,” Dodd said.

Voyager 2 and its counterpart, Voyager 1, launched a few weeks apart back in 1977 to carry out a unique ‘grand tour’ of the Solar System‘s massive planets like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The two spacecraft successfully completed the mission and then kept traveling to the interstellar space.

Voyager 1 managed to get to its exploration limit in August 2012, which made it the first human-made object to ever leave the heliosphere, the massive circle of magnetic fields and charged particles that the sun spews around itself. Voyager 2 followed its twin six months later.

Both probes are running low on power, but they still have sufficient to keep collecting data until 2024, the mission team members have stated.

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