How NASA Nearly Lost the Voyager 2 Spacecraft Forever
When Suzanne Dodd’s team transmitted a routine command to Voyager 2 on July 21, the unthinkable happened: They accidentally sent the wrong version, which pointed the interstellar probe’s antenna slightly away from Earth. When they next expected to receive data, they heard nothing at all. The small error almost made humanity lose its connection with the popular spacecraft, which is now 12.4 billion miles from home. Along with its twin, Voyager 1, it is humanity’s farthest-flung spacecraft that is still collecting data.
Here’s what happened: Dodd’s team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had actually spotted the error in the command and corrected it—but then mistakenly sent out the flawed version. “It felt awful. It was a moment of panic, because we were 2 degrees off point, which was substantial,” says Dodd, the project manager of the Voyager interstellar mission.
The team settled on a solution: Blast a “shout” command in the probe’s direction, telling it to adjust the antenna back toward Earth. If the signal was strong enough, the craft could still receive…