NASA has lost contact with its Voyager 2 space probe – nearly 50 years after its launch.
The United States space agency said the probe – which is now floating on its own, almost 12 billion kilometres from Earth – was no longer in contact with its engineers. It comes after a series of planned commands were sent to the probe on July 21.
However, the deep space manoeuvres left Voyager 2 pointing the wrong way. And now NASA says the probe either cannot receive commands, or is unable to send back its data.
Its twin, Voyager 1, continues to operate normally and is located almost 15 billion miles from Earth. The spacecraft were designed to find and study the edge of our solar system.
But all is not lost. Nasa is hopeful it will be able to re-establish contact with Voyager 2, which was launched from Florida on August 20, 1977.
The probe is programmed to automatically reset its orientation, to direct its antenna back towards Earth. Nasa said this next reset is expected to happen on 15 October.
And Nasa is using its huge dish antenna in Canberra to listen for stray signals from the craft. Because of the huge distances involved, it takes more than 18 hours for a signal to reach Earth from so far away.
“Between now and then, the probe is expected to “remain on its planned trajectory during the quiet period”.
However, even if contact is restored, it could soon be lost forever. Back in 2019, Dr Edward Stone, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology and former director of the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory, predicted we would lose contact with the Voyagers for good by 2024.
He said the crafts’ plutonium power sources will eventually stop supplying electricity, at which point their instruments and their transmitters will die. He added: “In another five years or so we may not have enough scientific instruments to power it any longer.”
While they may not be able to send back data, both Voyagers could be around for millennia. Back in 2019, Bill Kurth, a research scientist at the University of Iowa, predicted that both Voyagers “will outlast Earth”.
He said: “They’re in their own orbits around the galaxy for five billion years or longer. And the probability of them running into anything is almost zero.”
Both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 left our solar system a number of years ago, becoming the first man-made objects to become ‘interstellar’. The Voyagers were sent initially to study the outer planets including Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, but then just kept on going.