After 37 years, Voyager 1 has fired up its trajectory thrusters

Posted December 04, 2017

The thrusters are an essential component to maintain the probe's communications, as they're used to reorient the direction of its antennae back toward the Earth.

They wanted to reposition Voyager 1, which, at 21 billion kilometres away is the space agency's most far-flung spaceship. But this past Tuesday, engineers fired them up anyway, and after 19 hours of waiting for the results to transmit from Voyager's antenna to Earth, they learned that it actually worked.

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.

And there's a lot we don't know about interstellar space - like, how does material from other stars interact with our solar system? NASA says they hope to extend Voyager 1's life by at least two or three more years.

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They have made discoveries such as active volcanoes on Jupiter's moon and the intricacies of Saturn's rings.

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", Barber said.

NASA reported earlier this week that, for the first time in decades, Voyager 1 had its thrusters, which have remained otherwise dormant for almost 40 years, fired up to adjust its trajectory.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said Chris Jones of JPL. These are located on the back of the spacecraft and are identical to the thrusters that they've used so far. It did. After almost four decades of dormancy, the Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactured thrusters fired perfectly. "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", Todd Barber, a propulsion engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said in a statement.

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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.

This week, the scientists and engineers on the Voyager team did something very special. When there is no longer enough power to operate the heaters, the team will switch back to the attitude control thrusters.

The research team may also carry out the same kind of test for Voyager 2's TCM thrusters, following the success of Voyager 1's test. Voyager 2's attitude control thrusters, however, are not as reduced in quality as those of Voyager 1.

Voyager 1 was launched on September 5, 1977.

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