March 22, 2018

NASA wakes up Voyager's slumbering thrusters 37 years later

05 December 2017, 05:08 | Lucia Cruz

An illustration of Voyager 1’s entry to interstellar space. Image NASA

An illustration of Voyager 1’s entry to interstellar space. Image NASA

Now, the agency has ensured that it can maintain contact with the farthest spacecraft from Earth for at least two to three more years by waking up a set of backup thrusters it hasn't used since 1980. Fortunately, Voyager 1 seems to refuse to give up the ghost and its backup thrusters have been successfully fired up, even after being left unused for 37 years.

The Voyager 1 probe has been zooming through the void for 40 years and is the only human spacecraft travelling through interstellar space, the bleak expanse of nothingness between stars. The trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters, which have not been used for 37 years, were brought back into play to take over the job. The MR-103 thrusters, delivered by Aerojet Rocketdyne, are meant to fire in pulses to spin the spacecraft and retain its 12-foot (3.7-meter) antenna directed towards Earth, but engineers have observed plenty of firings were required recently designating the jets were ceding some of their interpretation. The spacecraft, which is now over 13 billion miles from Earth, moving at a speed of over 38,000 miles per hour, was recently asked to do something it hasn't done in over 37 years, and it somehow managed to actually pull it off.

On Wednesday, the engineers "learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters", said NASA. As each milestone in the test was achieved, the excitement level grew, said propulsion engineer Todd Barber.

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"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".

NASA plans to switch over to the formerly dormant thrusters in January. The "attitude control thrusters" have been in decline since 2014, and are now wasting more propellant than ever. Then they waited 19 hours, 35 minutes for the test results to arrive at an antenna in Goldstone, California. It adds that it might not have to do that soon, as the trusters in use on the Voyager 2 are not as "degraded" as Voyager 1's.

The Voyager spacecraft were built by JPL, which continues to operate both. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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