Voyager 1 probe fires long-dormant thrusters in interstellar space

04 December, 2017, 01:28 | Author: Eleanor Thompson

United States space agency NASA has successfully fired up a set of thrusters aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft after 37 years of being unused. At 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no mechanic shop nearby to get a tune-up.

Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 and flew past Jupiter and Saturn in 1979 and 1980 respectively. It reached interstellar space in 2012, making it the first object made by humans to leave our solar system.

Artist's depiction of the Voyager spacecraft.

Ever since Voyager 1-NASA's farthest spacecraft- was launched, it has relied on its primary thrusters, called "attitude control thrusters".

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Scientists first noticed the spacecraft's main thrusters were degrading in 2014.

The thrusts lasted a mere 10-milliseconds, but due to the colossal distance between the probe and its home planet the commands took 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach Voyager. These are located on the back of the spacecraft and are identical to the thrusters that they've used so far.

"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, on Friday.

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.

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But after decades of operation, the "attitude control thrusters" that turn the spacecraft by firing tiny "puffs" had degraded.

On Wednesday, the engineers "learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters", said NASA.

The Voyager team now wants to change over to the TCM thrusters in January, during a process where the spacecraft has to switch on a heater for each thruster, which needs power - a scarce resource for this aging mission.

Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer, said that the Voyager team got more thrilled each time with each milestone in the thruster experiment. Its fellow spacecraft, Voyager 2, is on its way there, too - and both carry a small American flag and a "Golden Record", which is packed with mementos from Earth in the form of pictures and sounds. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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The test went so well that not only will Voyager 1 be switching over to the backup thrusters until there's no longer enough power to keep them warm, but they're looking into to doing the same thing for its twin, Voyager 2 - after proper testing, of course. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however.

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