Voyager 1's Thrusters Fired After Decades Spent Dormant

Artist's impression of Oumuamua the first confirmed interstellar asteroid

Yesterday, NASA announced that it has successfully fired up four of Voyager 1's backup thrusters, which haven't been used since 1980, which should extend its life by a couple of years. Over the next few years it completed fly-bys of Jupiter, Saturn, and Titan-Saturn's largest moon. Voyager 1 reached interstellar space, which NASA described as "the environment between the stars", in 2012.

Artist's depiction of the Voyager spacecraft.

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.

Voyager 1 is some 13 billion miles away, and radio signals take about 10 hours to travel between the spacecraft and the Deep Space Network here on its home planet.

Scientists first noticed the spacecraft's main thrusters were degrading in 2014.

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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.

Because of the success in the attempt to test Voyager 1's TCM thrusters, NASA plans to test the ones on Voyager 2. In the year 40,272, Voyager 1 will get within two light years of a star in the Little Dipper constellation, and Voyager 2 will reach a similar distance from a star in the Andromeda constellation. To accurately fly by and point the spacecraft's instruments at a smorgasbord of targets, engineers used "trajectory correction maneuver", or TCM, thrusters that are identical in size and functionality to the attitude control thrusters, and are located on the back side of the spacecraft.

The spacecraft had been relying on its primary thrusters to keep it oriented, but these have degraded over time.

"Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters", the statement said. They will do so by switching over to backup TCM thrusters in early January of next year. When there is no longer enough power to operate the heaters, the team will switch back to the attitude control thrusters. It was a message from Voyager 1, the only man-made object in interstellar space.

Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer, said that the Voyager team got more thrilled each time with each milestone in the thruster experiment. This finding prompted NASA engineers at the JPL in Pasadena, California to examine the issue. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however. 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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