NASA Activates Voyager's Dormant Thrusters 37 Years Later

Terry Joseph
December 6, 2017

These "attitude control thrusters", as they are called, have been degrading for three years now, expending a greater amount of energy and shortening Voyager 1's mission lifespan.

After being unused for 37 years, United States space agency NASA successfully fired up a set of thrusters aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft last week.

Voyager 1 has been hurtling through space since 1977, the same year that saw the first home computer hit the market.

NASA engineers have fired up 40-year-old technology from a distance of 13 billion miles.

For this development, the Voyager team got together a group of propulsion experts in order to study the problem.

According to NASA, Voyager 1 and its sister Voyager 2 continue to communicate with NASA daily.

The following day, they learned the thrusters worked perfectly.

Corbis via Getty Images                   The original Voyager 2 mission control room. Things have changed quite a bit since then
Corbis via Getty Images The original Voyager 2 mission control room. Things have changed quite a bit since then

NASA reports that it feels the test went so well that it will most likely do the same for the Voyager 2 spacecraft.

This is done by a series of puffs from thrusters aboard the craft - small puffs that fire only mere milliseconds, and are more than enough to orient Voyager 1 towards our planet, as NASA explained in their news update last Friday, Dec. 1.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said Jones, chief engineer at JPL.

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", said Todd Barber, a propulsion engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). At 13 billion miles from earth, the response from Voyager 1 takes 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach the Voyager team, even when the signal travels at the speed of light.

The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January, it said.

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. 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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