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NASA successfully fires Voyager 1 thrusters after 37 years

05 December 2017, 05:09 | Justin Tyler

NASA successfully fires Voyager 1 thrusters after 37 years

NASA successfully fires Voyager 1 thrusters after 37 years

Now 21 billion kilometres from earth and the only human-made object in interstellar space, Voyager 1 last made use of these thrusters in 1980 when it passed by Saturn. The small adjustments are needed to turn Voyager's antenna toward Earth, allowing it to continue sending communications.

Voyager 1 has been hurtling on its way out of the Solar System for the better part of 40 years now, and it's never been more important to keep its antenna pointed to Earth to keep it in touch with NASA engineers.

Yet Voyager 1, NASA's furthest-travelled spacecraft, has just fired up a set of thrusters that haven't been used for 37 years. Voyager 1 also has "trajectory correction maneuver" thrusters or TCMs, but they worked differently and were used for a different goal, despite having the same build. NASA knew it needed to tweak its orientation in order to allow the craft to send and receive information, but that's much easier said than done, especially when the thrusters required to make that adjustment haven't even been woken up in almost four decades.

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

To NASA's delight, the four dormant thrusters came alive. It orients itself by firing several 10-millisecond puffs with its thrusters - problem is, the ones it regularly uses haven't been performing as well after four decades in space.

You can then imagine their mixed incredulity and glee when, on November 29, they received data that Voyager 1's backup thrusters worked flawlessly in a test run. To make the change, Voyager has to turn on one heater per thruster, which requires power - a limited resource for the aging mission. Todd Barber, one of the propulsion experts who looked at the issue closely, said that "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test".

The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January, it said. The "attitude control thrusters" have been in decline since 2014, and are now wasting more propellant than ever.

The thruster test went so well, the team will likely do a similar test on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the twin spacecraft of Voyager 1. It adds that it might not have to do that soon, as the trusters in use on the Voyager 2 are not as "degraded" as Voyager 1's. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena.

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