NASA fires up Voyager 1 backup thrusters after 37 years

NASA fires up Voyager 1 backup thrusters after 37 years

NASA fires up Voyager 1 backup thrusters after 37 years

Because of Voyager 1's extreme distance from Earth, it takes over 19 hours for a message to fly one way to or from Voyager 1.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft has fired-up its thruster engines for the first time in 37 years.

NASA launched Voyager 1 way back in 1977.

In recent decades, Voyager had been relying on its primary thrusters to keep the spacecraft properly oriented so that it can maintain a communications link with Earth. Voyager Project Manager Suzanne Dodd said the new workaround would extend the life of the Voyager 1 project by two or three years. Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber examined options and foretold how the spacecraft would respond in various scenarios. They agreed on an unusual solution: Try giving the job of orientation to a set of thrusters that had been asleep for 37 years.

As humanity's first visitor to interstellar space, NASA's Voyager 1 has revealed itself to be a trooper, answering commands that take nearly 20 hours to arrive, and performing routine tasks and transmitting data back (another 20-hour one-way call) to the home planet. The team waited eagerly as the test results travelled into space, taking 19 hours 35 minutes to outreach an antenna in Goldstone, California, that is the section of NASA's Deep Space Network. The similar kind of thruster, called the MR-103, travelled on other NASA probe as well, like Dawn and Cassini.

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

Saturn as seen by Voyager
Saturn as seen by Voyager

The engineers fired up the thrusters on Tuesday and tested their ability to turn Voyager using 10-millisecond pulses.

Unfortunately, the secondary thrusters require power to provide heat to operate - a limited resource on the tiny probe. "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".

The spacecraft are powered by radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) that generate heat from the decay of plutonium-238.

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 attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as diminished as Voyager 1's, however.

Voyager 2 lags behind, but according to NASA, the spacecraft is following the lead of the first Voyager and is on course to enter interstellar space in the coming years. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena.

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