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NASA loses contact with Voyager Two after a programming error on Earth

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The space agency NASA is waiting to reestablish contact with Voyager 2. That spacecraft has been hurtling away from the Earth since 1977. In recent weeks, a programming error on Earth caused the agency to lose contact, leaving NASA waiting for an automatic reset to kick in this fall. Suzanne Dodd, who manages Voyager 2 from a California lab, says it's now 13 billion miles away recording information and also ready for contact just in case.

SUZANNE DODD: It does have this gold record on it that contains the sounds of our planet Earth, and it's on this spacecraft for any future being to discover it.

INSKEEP: You know, when I first read about the gold record as a kid, I think, I wondered, would, you know, any alien life form - would they know how to play it? And I'm now realizing it's been going so long that if it came back to Earth with this gold record, we'd have the same question. Would anybody know how to play it?

DODD: Right. It's a phonographic record. They actually attached a needle with that record on the outside of the spacecraft, so the technology is definitely 1970s technology with Voyager.

INSKEEP: The record contains greetings in many languages.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: And also sounds of Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMALS VOCALIZING)

INSKEEP: So we presume no one has listened at this point, but you are getting information. How would you describe to laymen what you're learning about the universe these last several years?

DODD: I look at Voyager right now as somewhat of a weather satellite, in some ways. There's nothing to take pictures of. We've stopped taking pictures since we went past Neptune. It's very, very dark, very, very cold where Voyager is. The sun is basically a bright star to Voyager. But we can measure the environment we're traveling through. So we measure the density of the plasma. We measure the energy levels of charged particles that we see. We measure the solar wind and the absence of solar wind.

INSKEEP: So what happened with the antennas recently?

DODD: Well, it was a bit unfortunate. We sent a command to update its pointing toward the Earth, and there was an error in that command. And so it's pointed about two degrees off of the Earth. And from the distance that Voyager 2 is, close to 13 billion miles from us, that essentially points it almost to the orbit of Jupiter.

INSKEEP: Wow. It's several planets off.

DODD: Several planets off, yeah. And that makes it very hard to communicate with.

INSKEEP: What have the last several weeks been like when you realized this happened and something had gone wrong?

DODD: It's been very stressful. I think it's disheartening to know that, you know, we've worked so long with this spacecraft that it might be in jeopardy now. I mean, it's certainly a member of the family to everybody on the team who works on it. And to have this kind of issue happen is - it's scary. It's disheartening. We're hopeful that all the built-in checks that we put into the software will work, but you never know 100%. So it's kind of a little bit on pins and needles and pretty nervous, actually.

INSKEEP: Well, Suzanne Dodd, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

DODD: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: She's the Voyager project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which hopes to reestablish contact with the spacecraft by October. We're hearing a Chuck Berry song that is on that golden record on board Voyager 2.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHNNY B. GOODE")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans, way back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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