Sci-tech

NASA nails test on Voyager spacecraft, 13 billion miles away

NASA nails test on Voyager spacecraft, 13 billion miles away

Now 21 billion kilometres from earth and the only human-made object in interstellar space, Voyager 1 last made use of these thrusters in 1980 when it passed by Saturn.

The satellite relies on "attitude control" thrusters to orient itself so it can communicate with Earth using the Deep Space Network.

"With these engines that are still in operation after 37 years, we will be able to extend the service life of the spacecraft "Voyager 1" in two or three years", said Suzanne Dodd, project Manager for Voyager at the jet propulsion Laboratory of NASA.

This spacecraft was sent nearly 40 years ago and, for the first time in 37 years, it has fired up its thrusters. Voyager is now 13 billion miles from Earth, with transmissions taking 19 hours and 35 minutes each way.

The TCM thrusters were used when Voyager was inside the solar system to boost the probe around Jupiter, Saturn, and the large planets' many moons.

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On Wednesday, the engineers "learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters", said NASA.

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test". The "attitude control thrusters" have been in decline since 2014, and are now wasting more propellant than ever. As they get old, the thrusters need more puffs to generate a similar amount of energy than before.

Ground controllers were seeking some solution and they made up their mind to evaluate a discrete rocket pack with four indistinguishable MR-103 "trajectory correction maneuver", or TCM, thrusters on the hind sight of the spacecraft that were utilized to coax Voyager 1 and sustain it on course during flybys prematurely in the commission.

On Tuesday November 28th, Voyager engineers fired up the four thrusters for the first time in 37 years and tested their ability to orient the spacecraft using 10-millisecond pulses. Now, NASA is planning to switch the TCM thrusters on again in January.

Voyager 1 is in interstellar space and Voyager 2 is now in the "Heliosheath" - the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas.