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NASA fires up Voyager 1 backup thrusters after 37 years

03 December 2017, 01:26 | Ross Houston

NASA fires up Voyager 1 backup thrusters after 37 years

NASA fires up Voyager 1 backup thrusters after 37 years

As humanity's first visitor to interstellar space, NASA's Voyager 1 has revealed itself to be a trooper, answering commands that take nearly 20 hours to arrive, and performing routine tasks and transmitting data back (another 20-hour one-way call) to the home planet.

The US space firm NASA has said a set of thrusters aboard the Voyager 1 probe, the unique human-made object in interstellar space, have been successfully fired up after 37 years without practice.

In recent decades, Voyager had been relying on its primary thrusters to keep the spacecraft properly oriented so that it can maintain a communications link with Earth. These thrusters fire in small pulses, lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet.

Launched in 1977, the interstellar space probe Voyager 1 - a product of the US-funded NASA technology-incubation center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in California - has broken all records for spaceflight by travelling some 13 billion miles from the sun, farther than any man made device, while remaining a viable scientific platform.

The Voyager team gathered a group of momentum specialist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena, California, to investigate the puzzle. They allowed on an exceptional solution: Try giving the job of orientation to a set of thrusters that had been resting for 37 years. They noticed that the craft's attitude control thrusters, which it uses to keep itself pointed the right direction, have been falling in efficiency for years. Then they waited 19 hours, 35 minutes for the test results to arrive at an antenna in Goldstone, California. The same kind of thruster, called the MR-103, flew on other NASA spacecraft as well, such as Cassini and Dawn.

By switching to the spacecraft's "trajectory correction maneuver" thrusters, last used during the spacecraft's encounter with Saturn in 1980, engineers say they will be able to extend the lifetime of Voyager by two or three more years before its waning power reserves expire.

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This week, the scientists and engineers on the Voyager team did something very special.

So the Voyager 1 engineers came up with a new plan.

Turns out the thrusters worked just fine. The probe now uses its attitude control thrusters to make tiny corrections - firing for only milliseconds at a time - to rotate it to point its antenna towards Earth.

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 2 lags behind, but according to NASA, the spacecraft is following the lead of the first Voyager and is on course to enter interstellar space in the coming years.

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



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