NASA Turns on Voyager 1 Thrusters after 37 Years

16 days after its twin Voyager 2. This artist concept depicts one of NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft. Image credit NASA  JPL-Caltech

16 days after its twin Voyager 2. This artist concept depicts one of NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft. Image credit NASA JPL-Caltech

The Voyager team had noticed diminishing returns on these thrusters since 2014, with the thrusters needing to fire up more often to give off the same amount of energy.

The only human-created object present in interstellar space, NASA's spacecraft Voyager 1, has been fired up for the first time in the last 37 years. Keeping a communication link open to a space probe that's now over 13 billion miles away from Earth isn't easy, and it requires precise adjustments to the spacecraft's orientation.

The U.S. space agency reports in a news release that it was able to activate a set of four different backup thrusters on the farthest traveled spacecraft for the first time since 1980.

Voyager 1 doesn't actually need thrusters to continue drifting through space.

The TCM thrusters are identical in size and functionality to the attitude control thrusters, but sit at the back of the spacecraft, and were used very differently to the attitude control thrusters.

Voyager's thrusters are powered by hydrazine, and there's enough on board to keep them operational until 2040, but we'll probably lose contact with the spacecraft long before then.

The Voyager flight team dug up old records and studied the original software before tackling the test.

Voyager 1 sped past Jupiter and Saturn on its way out of the solar system.

Ground controllers were seeking some solution and they made up their mind to evaluate a discrete rocket pack with four indistinguishable MR-103 "trajectory correction maneuver", or TCM, thrusters on the hind sight of the spacecraft that were utilized to coax Voyager 1 and sustain it on course during flybys prematurely in the commission.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters.

These small backup thrusters use hydrazine propellant and could be vital to extending Voyager 1's mission.

For this development, the Voyager team got together a group of propulsion experts in order to study the problem. "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", said Todd Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer.

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