Voyager 1 Fires Up Thrusters After 37 Years


NASA knew it needed to tweak its orientation in order to allow the craft to send and receive information, but that's much easier said than done, especially when the thrusters required to make that adjustment haven't even been woken up in almost four decades.

'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.

Voyager 1 Fires Up Thrusters After 37 Years

Now 21 billion kilometres from earth and the only human-made object in interstellar space, Voyager 1 last made use of these thrusters in 1980 when it passed by Saturn. With that in mind, NASA made a decision to fire the older thrusters up and see if they could take over the attitude control adjustments. NASA plans to switch to the backup thrusters in January and when there's no longer enough power for those, switch back to the main ones.

Voyager 1 doesn't actually need thrusters to continue drifting through space. The trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters, which have not been used for 37 years, were brought back into play to take over the job.

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To NASA's delight, the four dormant thrusters came alive.

In order to pull off this seemingly miraculous feat, the team had to dig through a huge archive of old Voyager data for the information they needed to test the feasibility of firing up the thrusters.

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Sending a series of 10-millisecond pulses to try and orientate the spacecraft, NASA had to wait for 19 hours and 35 minutes to know if it had been successful. The "attitude control thrusters" have been in decline since 2014, and are now wasting more propellant than ever. As each milestone in the test was achieved, the excitement level grew, said propulsion engineer Todd Barber.

The thruster test went so well, the team will likely do a similar test on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the twin spacecraft of Voyager 1. That won't happen anytime soon, though, because Voyager 2's original thrusters are still working fine.

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"The mood was one of relief, joy and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all", he said in a statement. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.