For many high school students, one of the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic is social isolation. Being far away from friends is hard, but luckily here on Earth the farthest you can be from anyone is only about 8,000 miles. Right now Voyager 2, humanity’s ambassador to the galaxy, is more than 11.6 billion miles from home, and it hasn’t had anyone to talk to since March.
Hitting a moving object 11.6 billion miles away with a radio wave is no small task. There are only three radio antennas on Earth capable of the feat, and the one used to communicate with Voyager 2, Canberra Deep Space Station in Australia, had to be taken offline for repairs in March of 2020.
The Canberra deep space antenna is NASA’s only way to contact Voyager 2
Since then, NASA has had no contact with the intrepid little probe, the second most distant human made object ever launched. The farthest is Voyager 1, launched in 1977 only a few days before Voyager 2 as part of a NASA attempt to pave the way for first contact with an alien civilization. Both probes contain the famous Golden Records, a carefully designed guide to Earth containing information about humanity as well images, greetings, and even music from all over the planet. Carl Sagan, astrophysicist and former host of Cosmos, once called the project a “bottle into the cosmic ocean.”
When the antenna finally came back online on Monday, November 2nd, NASA sent out an official “hello” to Voyager 2 along with some simple instructions. They had to wait nearly 35 hours for a reply, although this delay was due to distance and not to any anti-social behavior on the part of Voyager. Following its programming, Voyager 2 returned a “hello” in response, officially ending the long communications blackout of the past few months.
Communication with the little probe will of course get more difficult as it gets farther and farther from Earth, but since it shows no sign of encountering an alien species anytime soon, we can only hope that humanity will keep in touch with its farthest friend for many years to come.