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After 37 years, Voyager 1 has fired up its trajectory thrusters
04 December 2017, 01:28 | Ruben Stone
Going bravely where no spacecraft has gone before
Only one problem: the last time they were used was 37 years ago, in 1980. The probe now uses its attitude control thrusters to make tiny corrections - firing for only milliseconds at a time - to rotate it to point its antenna towards Earth.
Since nobody can physically check the condition of a probe 13 billion miles away, the team first gathered experts to assess the situation.
As humanity's first visitor to interstellar space, NASA'sVoyager 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.
NASA will likely do a similar test of Voyager 2's TCM thrusters, which could be used if that spacecraft's attitude control thrusters further degrade in the future.
Voyager 1 left our solar system in August 2012 and entered interstellar space and is sending data back through NASA's Deep Space Network. According to Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd, the reactivated thrusters should help extend the life of the probe for another "two to three years".
The Voyager missions discovered the first active volcanoes beyond Earth, at Jupiter's moon Io, and hints of a subsurface ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa.
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"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said Jones, chief engineer at JPL.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 four Aerojet Rocketdyne MR-103 trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) engines were last fired in 1980 when the spacecraft was passing Saturn.
The Voyager team gathered a group of momentum specialist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena, California, to investigate the puzzle.
Voyager 1, which was launched in 1977, depends on thrusters, which are small devices that orient the spacecraft to communicate with Earth.
The spacecraft had been relying on its primary thrusters to keep it oriented, but these have degraded over time. "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", Todd Barber, a propulsion engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said in a statement.
The research team may also carry out the same kind of test for Voyager 2's TCM thrusters, following the success of Voyager 1's test. Voyager 2's attitude control thrusters, however, are not as reduced in quality as those of Voyager 1. When there is no longer enough power to operate the heaters, the team will switch back to the attitude control thrusters. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however.
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