NASA fires up Voyager 1 thrusters after 37 years

Monday, 04 Dec, 2017

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.

Last week, ground controllers sent commands to fire backup thrusters on Voyager 1, our most distant spacecraft.

The TCM thrusters are identical to the degrading attitude control thrusters, only they are located on the back side of the satellite. 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.

Experts at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California made a decision to turn to four backup thrusters that were last used on November 8, 1980.

Still, the team though the TCM thrusters might suit their purposes, so on November 28, they chose to fire them up with 10-millisecond pulses to test if they could be a viable replacement for the almost spent thrusters. "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", Todd Barber, a propulsion expert in the team, noted.

Sending a series of 10-millisecond pulses to try and orientate the spacecraft, NASA had to wait for 19 hours and 35 minutes to know if it had been successful.

Now travelling far outside our solar system, and with its primary thrusters on their last legs, NASA chose to conduct a test on its long-rested back-up system.

The TCMs haven't been in use since 1980, however, when it was needed to stabilize the Voyager 1 during its fly bys of Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons.

"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. They also plan to perform a similar test on the younger Voyager 2, in the eventuality that its still perfectly functioning main thrusters give out. Scientists still hear from the Voyager spacecraft daily, and expect to get data for about another decade.

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. The plutonium-powered spaceships will continue until they finally run out of fuel, and will then orbit in the center of the Milky Way galaxy.