Voyager 1's Thrusters Fired After Decades Spent Dormant

Voyager 1's Thrusters Fired After Decades Spent Dormant

Voyager 1's Thrusters Fired After Decades Spent Dormant

According to a statement, the Voyager team chose to go for a bit of a wildcard, agreeing on an "unusual solution" that involved firing up a set of four backup thrusters, which hadn't been used since 1980.

Engineers say the back-up thrusters - more used to being fired continuously - worked just as well in short bursts to reorient the spacecraft towards Earth. Voyager 1 is now more than 13 billion miles away from Earth, so the commands took a while to be relayed.

The engineers tested their ability to orient the spacecraft using 10-millisecond pulses, which enabled the signals from the spacecraft reach an antenna in Goldstone, California, in about 19 hours and 35 minutes on Wednesday.

Voyager 1 is the most distant human-made object, and scientists announced in 2013 the craft's crossing of the boundary between the sun's influence and interstellar space, making it the first mission to explore the void between the stars.

In the early days of this mission, Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter, Saturn, and major moons of each.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said JPL's Chris Jones, who led the effort, in a JPL news release.

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NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft - cruising interstellar space billions of miles from Earth - was back on the right track Friday thanks to thrusters that were fired up for the first time in 37 years. Over the past four decades, as it flew past Jupiter and Saturn and eventually out into the vast reaches of space, it's been using tiny thrusters to position its antenna so it can communicate with Earth.

The Voyager team gathered a group of momentum specialist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena, California, to investigate the puzzle. Back then, the TCM thrusters were utilized in a more constant firing mode; they had never been used in the brief explosions necessary to orient the spacecraft. (They are not nuclear reactors.) The RTGs lose about 4 watts of power each year and the spacecraft are moving further away. "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 propulsion engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

NASA added it will likely do a similar test on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the twin spacecraft of Voyager 1.

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.

Voyager 1 was launched on September 5, 1977.

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