NASA wakes up Voyager's slumbering thrusters 37 years later

04 December, 2017, 01:27 | Author: Gary Shelton
  • Enlarge Image This artist's depiction imagines what Voyager 1 looked like when crossing into interstellar space.                  NASA  JPL-Caltech

The Voyager 1 spacecraft has fired-up its thruster engines for the first time in 37 years.

In the early days of the mission, Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter, Saturn, and important moons of each. Voyager 1 reached interstellar space, which NASA described as "the environment between the stars", in 2012.

First launched all the way back on September 5th, 1977 the Voyager 1 space probe remains one of the United States' space exploration history's crowning achievements.

The condition of thrusters, called "attitude control thrusters", which were being used to orient the spacecraft, started detioriating after 2014 and a new way had to be discovered to keep its antenna pointing the right direction.

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On top of the the backups sitting idle for so long, while being 13 billion miles from Earth, there was a third problem: the backups weren't used for "attitude control". They got their answer 19 hours and 35 minutes later, the time it took for the results to reach Earth: The set of four thrusters worked perfectly.

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.

And even after Voyager 1 dies - or if we lose contact with it - the spacecraft is ready to achieve great things.

NASA added it will likely do a similar test on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the twin spacecraft of Voyager 1. Ground control was able to reconfigure them to fire in a milliseconds-long pulse mode; the Verge noted the ability to use the TCM thrusters as a replacement for the main set "should extend [Voyager 1's] life by a couple of years".

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The last time the TCM thrusters were used was on November 8, 1980, during Voyager 1's encounter with Saturn, after which, they were not needed because there were no more planetary encounters.The experts searched up old date from years ago and studied the software coded in an assembler language, which was outdated, to ensure that the thrusters could be worked safely. JPL operates Voyager and the Deep Space Network (DSN) that receives the signals. And yet, when scientists at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory made a decision to try firing up its old thrusters, they still worked.

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", said Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer. This finding prompted NASA engineers at the JPL in Pasadena, California to examine the issue.

The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January. California. 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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