NASA fires Voyager 1's thrusters for first time in 37 years

Nick Sanchez
December 4, 2017

The last time they were needed was when Voyager 1 passed Saturn on November 8, 1980.

However, over the past three years, scientists at Nasa noticed that the main "attitude control thrusters" of the spacecraft, which reorient its antennas towards our planet and help with communication, had been wearing out with time.

Of course, many parts of the Voyager craft still work despite their age - they've been sending reliable telemetry back since launch, including the memorable data in 2012 indicating that Voyager 1 had entered interstellar space.

Voyager 1 is some 13 billion miles away, and radio signals take about 10 hours to travel between the spacecraft and the Deep Space Network here on its home planet. Then they waited 19 hours, 35 minutes for the test results to arrive at an antenna in Goldstone, California.

NASA added it will likely do a similar test on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the twin spacecraft of Voyager 1. According to Suzanne Dodd, NASA's program manager for Voyager, the fact that the thrusters still worked after more than three decades will allow the probe's mission to be extended out years longer than previously anticipated.

In the early days of this mission, Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter, Saturn, and major moons of each.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said Chris Jones, chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

And even after Voyager 1 dies - or if we lose contact with it - the spacecraft is ready to achieve great things. It did. After almost four decades of dormancy, the Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactured thrusters fired perfectly.

Humanity's most distant spacecraft surprised its operators by answering the call to fire up rockets that have not been used in nearly 40 years. However, the thrusters were in a continuous firing mode at the time.

Now, the research team for Voyager at NASA was able to fire up a batch of four backup thrusters that have not been used since 1980.

The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January, it said.

To reawaken these dormant thrusters the team had to go back to the original Voyager documentation.

Voyager 1's primary thrusters have been degrading in the last few years, NASA said in a statement.

It is expected that in the year 40,272, Voyager 1 will come within 1.7 light years of an obscure star in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear or Little Dipper) and in about 40,000 years, Voyager 2 will come within about 1.7 light years of a star called Ross 248, a small star in the constellation of Andromeda.

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