Voyager 1 fires its thrusters for first time since 1980

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It relies on small devices called thrusters to orient itself so it can communicate with Earth.

The Voyager team chose to try using the TCM thrusters, which were created to accurately point the spacecraft as it passed Jupiter and Saturn and their moons.

"With these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years without use, we will be able to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years", said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

The JPL's engineers began to look into alternatives, and found a new way to steer the spacecraft: the probe's trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters. Over time, the thrusters need more puffs to give off the equivalent quantity of power.

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On top of the the backups sitting idle for so long, while being 13 billion miles from Earth, there was a third problem: the backups weren't used for "attitude control". Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber examined options and foretold how the spacecraft would respond in various scenarios.

Now that the four thrusters have proved to be operable, the Voyager 1 will have a longer mission. Since Voyager 1's last planetary encounter was Saturn, the Voyager team hadn't needed to use the TCM thrusters since November 8, 1980.

This additional life is important for mission controllers working with Voyager because the more data they can pull from this spacecraft, the better.

All of Voyager's thrusters were developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The similar kind of thruster, called the MR-103, travelled on other NASA probe as well, like Dawn and Cassini.

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Nasa's Voyager 1 spacecraft - cruising interstellar space billions of kilometres from Earth - was back on the right track thanks to thrusters that were fired up for the first time in 37 years. But this past Tuesday, engineers fired them up anyway, and after 19 hours of waiting for the results to transmit from Voyager's antenna to Earth, they learned that it actually worked. According to NASA, the re-awakened thrusters were just as effective as the attitude control thrusters.

Voyager 1 has a twin, Voyager 2, that flew past not only Jupiter and Saturn, but Uranus and Neptune, and is now headed out of the solar system on a different path. JPL says Voyager 2's attitude control thrusters are still fine, but they will likely do a test of its TCM thrusters to determine their status. The mood was one of relaxation, joy and wonder after observing these well-rested thrusters pull up the baton as if no time had moved at all.

Nasa plans to switch over to the formerly dormant thrusters in January.

Illustration of the paths of Voyager 1 and 2.

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