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NASA fires up Voyager 1 backup thrusters after 37 years

03 December 2017, 02:22 | Justin Tyler

NASA fires up Voyager 1 backup thrusters after 37 years

NASA fires up Voyager 1 backup thrusters after 37 years

Voyager 1, NASA's far away and active spacecraft, is the only human-made object in interstellar space, the environment between the stars. 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.

Experts at the agency's jet propulsion laboratory (JPL) in California made a decision to turn to four backup thrusters that were last used on 8 November 1980.

All of Voyager's thrusters were developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Nasa's Voyager 1 spacecraft-cruising interstellar space billions of miles from earth - was back on the right track on Friday thanks to thrusters that were fired up for the first time in 37 years. According to Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd, the reactivated thrusters should help extend the life of the probe for another "two to three years". They are located on the back side of the spacecraft in this orientation.

The probe began its epic journey on September 5, 1977, sending us back a wealth of information, including some stunning photos of Saturn and Jupiter and their many moons.

The thrusts lasted a mere 10-milliseconds, but due to the colossal distance between the probe and its home planet the commands took 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach Voyager. The same kind of thruster, called the MR-103, flew on other NASA spacecraft as well, such as Cassini and Dawn.

But the probe had a series of four backup trajectory correction manoeuvre thrusters which hadn't been used since 1980, and through a series of tests NASA discovered that they remained functional and worked just as well as the main set. "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 propulsion engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. To make the change, Voyager has to turn on one heater per thruster, which requires power - a limited resource for the aging mission. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however.

The engineers plan to use a similar test on Voyager 2, which was launched earlier than its twin, but is still within the realm of our solar system. A gramophone record carries the Voyager report, a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk moving sounds and images chosen to represent the diversity of life and culture on Earth.

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