NASA wakes up Voyager's slumbering thrusters 37 years later

The unmanned spaceship was launched along with its twin Voyager 2 more than 40 years ago to explore the outer planets of our solar system traveling further than any human-made object in history. Image courtesy Twitter

For the first time since 1980, NASA activated Voyager 1's backup thrusters. On November 22, 2017, the probe was approximately 13 billion miles (21 billion kilometers), from the Sun. Over the next few years it completed fly-bys of Jupiter, Saturn, and Titan-Saturn's largest moon.

Voyager 1 left our solar system in August 2012 and entered interstellar space and is sending data back through NASA's Deep Space Network.

Artist's depiction of the Voyager spacecraft.

Most recently, the spacecraft was signalled to testfire a set of four small rocket thrusters that have not been operational for 37 years, to see whether the device could be remotely oriented more efficiently. Since both Voyager 1 and 2 are supposed to last billions of years, the mementos of Earth that they carry could eventually be the only surviving trace of human life.

Scientists first noticed the spacecraft's main thrusters were degrading in 2014. However, almost 20 hours after firing up the backup thrusters, engineers received a signal from the Voyager back on Earth, which meant their test was successful.

Voyager 2 is also on course to enter interstellar space, likely within the next few years, and now, its attitude control thrusters are still functioning well. However, we can still communicate with Voyager across that distance. Back then, the TCM thrusters were utilized in a more constant firing mode; they had never been used in the brief explosions necessary to orient the spacecraft.

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By switching to the spacecraft's "trajectory correction maneuver" thrusters, last used during the spacecraft's encounter with Saturn in 1980, engineers say they will be able to extend the lifetime of Voyager by two or three more years before its waning power reserves expire.

The MR-103 thrusters, provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne, are created to fire in pulses to rotate the spacecraft and keep its 12-foot (3.7-metre) antenna pointed at Earth, but engineers have noticed more firings were needed recently, indicating the jets were losing some of their performance.

On Wednesday, the engineers "learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters", said NASA. When there is no longer enough power to operate the heaters, the team will switch back to the attitude control thrusters.

"We got more excited with each milestone in the thruster test". JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena.

Voyager 1, which has been flying for 40 years, is the only humanmade object in interstellar space and is the farthest and fastest spacecraft of NASA. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched 16 days apart in 1977.

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