NASA Turns on Voyager 1 Thrusters after 37 Years

NASA Turns on Voyager 1 Thrusters after 37 Years

For the first time in 37 years and billions of miles traveled, NASA successfully fired up a set of thrusters on the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

"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", Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager, said in the release.

The Voyager team assembled a group of propulsion experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to study the problem.

Voyager 1 used its four back up thrusters to orientate itself so its antennas are facing towards Earth and it can receive more messages in the future.

Voyager 1 doesn't actually need thrusters to continue drifting through space. The alternative, however, would be to give the Voyager 1 an early retirement.

The TCM thrusters were used when Voyager was inside the solar system to boost the probe around Jupiter, Saturn, and the large planets' many moons.

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The satellite relies on "attitude control" thrusters to orient itself so it can communicate with Earth using the Deep Space Network. Voyager is now 13 billion miles from Earth, with transmissions taking 19 hours and 35 minutes each way. The team was delighted when the results of their test were resoundingly positive.

"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", he added, as quoted by Engadget.

This is why, when you're sending something into space where you can never retrieve it for repairs, it's a good idea to include failsafes - in this case, Voyager 1 has additional thrusters that were used for trajectory correction manoeuvres (TCM). On November 28th, they finally test-fired the backup thrusters, which worked perfectly and rotated the spacecraft just as well as the primary ones can. To make the change, Voyager has to turn on one heater per thruster, which requires power - a limited resource for the aging mission.

Today's society might be caught up in next year's model when it comes to cars or gadgets, but science fans can stand to appreciate the engineering that went into the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched 16 days apart in 1977. The team might conduct a similar test with Voyager 2's backups to ensure it can also send data back after it follows its older sibling to interstellar space in a few years' time.

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