Science For All | A look at Voyager 2’s journey
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August 09, 2023 11:52 am | Updated August 14, 2023 07:34 pm IST

In this Aug. 4, 1977, photo provided by NASA, the “Sounds of Earth” record is mounted on the Voyager 2 spacecraft in the Safe-1 Building at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla. On Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023, NASA’s Deep Space Network sent a command to correct a problem with its antenna. It took more than 18 hours for the signal to reach Voyager 2 - more than 12 billion miles away - and another 18 hours to hear back. On Friday, Aug. 4, the spacecraft started returning data again.

In this Aug. 4, 1977, photo provided by NASA, the “Sounds of Earth” record is mounted on the Voyager 2 spacecraft in the Safe-1 Building at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla. On Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023, NASA’s Deep Space Network sent a command to correct a problem with its antenna. It took more than 18 hours for the signal to reach Voyager 2 - more than 12 billion miles away - and another 18 hours to hear back. On Friday, Aug. 4, the spacecraft started returning data again. | Photo Credit: AP

Floating through the edge of the solar system, the Voyager 2 space probe heard a “shout” from its creators from almost 20 billion km away. The ground team at NASA finally managed to reestablish its contact with earth this week after a wrong command tilted its antenna by two degrees which caused a loss of contact last month.

For this week’s newsletter, we will take a look at Voyager 2 and its accomplishments. Voyager 2 is an iconic interplanetary spacecraft launched by NASA on August 20, 1977. Part of the Voyager programme, it was designed to explore the outer planets of the Solar System–Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune–and provide valuable insights into their characteristics and environments. It is the sister spacecraft to Voyager 1 which explored Jupiter and Saturn. The 46-year-old probe’s primary mission was to study Jupiter and Saturn. It later expanded its mission to Uranus and Neptune. It became the first spacecraft to visit these latter two planets. Its current mission is to explore the part of space beyond the sun’s sphere of influence—the Heliosphere.

The spacecraft’s journey has been marked by numerous discoveries. During the Jupiter flyby, the probe collected crucial data on the planet’s clouds, its newly discovered moons and a faint ring system. Voyager 2 also detected a drift in the Great Red Spot as well as changes in its shape and colour. It also took photographs of Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, which revealed a collection of cracks in its icy crust. 

Slingshotting itself to Saturn, the probe peered at the planet’s famed rings at a much higher resolution than Voyager 1. While flying through Saturn’s ring at a speed of 13 km per second, it captured vital information on ring spokes, a phenomenon that is still being studied, as well as took pictures of its moons. 

As it moved towards Uranus, Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to visit the planet. Most notably, the probe found evidence of a boiling ocean of water about 800 km below the cloudy surface. It discovered 10 new moons and a tilted magnetic field stronger than that of Saturn. 

Flying by Neptune, Voyager 2 discovered five moons, four rings and a “Great Dark Spot” on the planet. It also found that Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, was the coldest object in the Solar System that housed a nitrogen “volcano”. 

Voyager 2 is also the only spacecraft that has flown past Uranus and Neptune so far. 

In December 2018, Voyager 2 left the Sun’s range of magnetic field and entered interstellar space. It continues to relay back important data about what lies beyond the Solar System and will go on doing so till 2026 when it runs out of power. 

Both Voyager 1 and 2 carry a record in case of an extra-terrestrial encounter. Voyager 2’s record is a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk that contains snippets of life and culture on earth. The record carries 115 pictures, greetings in 55 languages and a number of natural and musical sounds. 

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