Sci-tech

Voyager 1 Fires Up its Old Thrusters After 37 Years

Voyager 1 Fires Up its Old Thrusters After 37 Years

It is expected that in the year 40,272, Voyager 1 will come within 1.7 light years of an obscure star in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear or Little Dipper) and in about 40,000 years, Voyager 2 will come within about 1.7 light years of a star called Ross 248, a small star in the constellation of Andromeda.

On top of the the backups sitting idle for so long, while being 13 billion miles from Earth, there was a third problem: the backups weren't used for "attitude control".

NASA made the decision to activate the disused thrusters because the thrusters they had been using to adjust the spacecraft's antenna weren't functioning well anymore.

On Friday, NASA said it had successfully dusted off the spacecraft's long-dormant backup thrusters for the first time in 37 years.

Mission controllers are now planning to do the same test on Voyager 2, Voyager 1's twin spacecraft that's moving toward interstellar space now.

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

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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.

Instead of continuing to use the attitude control thrusters, they wanted to try to turn on the spacecraft's trajectory correction maneuver thrusters, which hadn't been used for almost 40 years.

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. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however. It did. After almost four decades of dormancy, the Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactured thrusters fired perfectly.

After reviewing decades-old data and software "that was coded in an outdated assembler language", JPL engineers, led by JPL Chief Engineer Chris Jones, determined it was safe to attempt to fire them.

Astronomy textbooks were rewritten on a wide scale thanks to the Voyager spacecraft, which zoomed past Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus. They got their answer 19 hours and 35 minutes later, the time it took for the results to reach Earth: The set of four thrusters worked perfectly. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said today that engineers began noticing in 2014 that the attitude control thrusters were degrading.

The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January. JPL operates Voyager and the Deep Space Network (DSN) that receives the signals. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena.


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