NASA efficiently fires Voyager 1 thrusters after 37 years

NASA fires Voyager 1 thrusters after decades-long sleep

In order to make its antenna point to Earth, Voyager often requires to rotate itself. Now, the Voyager team is able to use a set of four backup thrusters, dormant since 1980.

Since 2014, engineers have remarked that the thrusters Voyager 1 has been using to orient the satellite, named "attitude control thrusters", have been degrading.

Main thrusters are wearing out However, after 40 years, the main thrusters have started wearing out, with scientists noticing it was taking more "puffs" to move the craft into position. On November 22, 2017, the probe was approximately 13 billion miles (21 billion kilometers), from the Sun.

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"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", Jet Propulsion Laboratory chief engineer Chris Jones wrote. We've learned about Jupiter's moons, Saturn's rings, Neptune's winds - all thanks to Voyager 1. They reconfigured the whole system to fire 10-millisecond pulses, or brief bursts, to orient the spacecraft on 28 November and received the signals of the successful firing after almost 20 hours on 29 November. However, the thrusters were in a continuous firing mode at the time.

It took 19 hours and 35 minutes for the command to fire its thrusters to reach Voyager 1, and another 19 hours and 35 minutes for NASA to hear back that the engines had worked.

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", JPL propulsion engineer Todd Barber added in the blog post. The mood was one of relaxation, joy and wonder after observing these well-rested thrusters pull up the baton as if no time had moved at all.

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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.

The Voyagers will continue on their journeys forever, but their ability to communicate back to Earth to tell the tales of their exploration is limited not only by the thrusters, but by the power sources that provide electricity and warmth to keep the instruments operating.

NASA says the test went so well it will try a similar switch on Voyager 2, which is set to enter interstellar space in the next few years. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however.

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Although the response wasn't from another life form, it's impressive to know that it's possible to not only send a signal so far into space, but to also get a response - especially because the Voyager spacecraft are so important.

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