In the nearly 44 years since NASA launched Voyager 2, by visiting Uranus, Neptune, and, eventually, interstellar space, the spacecraft has gone beyond the frontiers of human exploration.
Last March, the agency was forced to shut down its only means for this robotic trailblazer to reach 12 billion miles across the skies. On Friday, as NASA switches the communications channel back on, Earth's haunting silence will come to an end, restoring the capacity of humanity to say hello to its distant explorer.
Because of the di
rection in which it flies out of the solar system, only one antenna in the entire world can receive commands from Earth via Voyager 2. It's called DSS 43 and it's located in Australia's Canberra.
It is part of the Deep Space Network, or DSN, which is how NASA and allied space agencies, along with stations in California and Spain, keep in touch with the armada of robotic spacecraft exploring everything from the corona of the sun to the regions of the Kuiper belt beyond Pluto's orbit. (The twin of Voyager 2, Voyager 1, is capable of communicating with the two other stations.)
DSS 43 has been operating since 1973 and is a 70-meter dish. Upgrades were long overdue, particularly with new robotic missions headed for Mars this year and even more preparing to launch in the months and years to come to study other worlds. So last year, even though the shutdown posed a considerable risk to the geriatric Voyager 2 probe, the dish was switched off and dismantled.
What would have been a normal antenna upgrade, like everything in 2020, was anything but. The mission managers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California would normally send about 30 experts to supervise the makeover of the dish. But the team was reduced to four by restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The crew working on the upgrade had to be separated into three smaller teams at the Canberra station, said Glen Nagle, outreach manager at the Deep Space Communication Complex in Canberra. "So if anyone got sick, there was always a backup team, and you could put that team in isolation, and the other team could come in and cover them." They split the teams into shifts in the morning and evening to ensure social distancing.