Voyager 1 Fires Dormant Thrusters for the First Time in 37 Years

Violet Powell
December 5, 2017

And even after Voyager 1 dies - or if we lose contact with it - the spacecraft is ready to achieve great things.

The backup rocket jets were originally created to help the Voyager 1 spacecraft aim its instruments at planets and moons on its journey through the solar system.

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.

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

Nasa had grown anxious about the altitude control thrusters on Voyager 1, which have been wearing down.

Of course, many parts of the Voyager craft still work despite their age - they've been sending reliable telemetry back since launch, including the memorable data in 2012 indicating that Voyager 1 had entered interstellar space. To accurately fly by and point the spacecraft's instruments at a smorgasbord of targets, engineers used "trajectory correction maneuver", or TCM, thrusters that are identical in size and functionality to the attitude control thrusters, and are located on the back side of the spacecraft. Yesterday, NASA announced that it has successfully fired up four of Voyager 1's backup thrusters, which haven't been used since 1980, which should extend its life by a couple of years.

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     MISSION CONTROL NASA scientists have been monitoring the probe since 1977
GETTY MISSION CONTROL NASA scientists have been monitoring the probe since 1977

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters". But because Voyager 1's last planetary encounter was Saturn, the Voyager team hadn't needed to use the TCM thrusters since November 8, 1980. It took almost 20 hours before Voyager's signal reached back to Earth, but it was successful. Now, nearly four decades later, they've come back to life without a hitch to take over for the failing attitude control thrusters.

Man, they just don't build 'em like they used to.

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

The team will switch over to the TCM thrusters in January, but there is a drawback: they require heaters to operate, which will draw on the probe's limited power. It was a message from Voyager 1, the only man-made object in interstellar space.

The JPL will also test out the TCM thrusters on Voyager 1's twin, Voyager 2, although NASA says that that spacecraft's attitude control thrusters are in better shape.

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