NASA wakes up Voyager's slumbering thrusters 37 years later

After 37 years, Voyager 1 has fired up its trajectory thrusters

Voyager 1 Fires Dormant Thrusters for the First Time in 37 Years

It reached interstellar space in 2012, making it the first object made by humans to leave our solar system. It relies on small devices called thrusters to orient itself so it can communicate with Earth. The thrusters fire in tiny pulses that last for a few milliseconds, which subtly rotates the spacecraft to enable its antennae to point toward Earth. But those thrusters had not been used in 37 years.

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The engineers began exploring the possibility of using the secondary engines, called trajectory control maneuver thrusters, which are located at the back on the probe. Over time, the thrusters require more puffs to give off the same amount of energy. (It's so lonely.) Now it's almost 21 billion kilometeres from Earth. In its 40 year journey into interstellar space, Voyager 1 completed the objectives of its mission, including flybys of Jupiter, Saturn and Saturn's large moon, Titan. Back then, the TCM thrusters were utilized in a more constant firing mode; they had never been used in the brief explosions necessary to orient the spacecraft. They are identical to the primary control thrusters, but the problem was that they hadn't been used since 1980, when the spacecraft flew past Saturn. It did. After almost four decades of dormancy, the Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactured thrusters fired perfectly. After adjusting the probe's position, it took roughly 20 hours for NASA to receive a return signal. In a blog post, the agency explained that Voyager 1's main attitude control thrusters had been degrading, making it hard to reorient the spacecraft so that its antenna points back towards Earth.

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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.

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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 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", said Todd Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer. The experts will turn back to the attitude control thrusters once there's insufficient power to operate the heaters. They will likely also conduct similar tests on the backup thrusters on Voyager 2. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as diminished as Voyager 1's, however. This finding prompted NASA engineers at the JPL in Pasadena, California to examine the issue. 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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