Published: Wed, December 06, 2017
Research | By Jennifer Evans

NASA Fires Up Voyager 1's Thrusters After 37 Years

NASA Fires Up Voyager 1's Thrusters After 37 Years

The TCMs haven't been in use since 1980, however, when it was needed to stabilize the Voyager 1 during its fly bys of Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons.

Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 is the only spacecraft traveling through interstellar space, the region beyond our solar system.

Stone was 36 years old when he first started working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where both Voyagers were built. The operations will continue over the next month, and the whole process could extend the spacecraft's life by two to three years.

NASA Fires Up Voyager 1's Thrusters After 37 Years
NASA Fires Up Voyager 1's Thrusters After 37 Years

NASA engineers have to resort to a set of thrusters called "trajectory correction maneuver" (TCM) since the ones that they have been using have degraded past beyond an acceptable point. Back then, the TCM thrusters were utilized in a more constant firing mode; they had never been used in the brief explosions necessary to orient the spacecraft. At 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no mechanic nearby to get a tune-up. They also hadn't been switched on since the craft's encounter with Saturn in 1980 and had never been used for the goal of orienting the craft for communication. The Voyager team had noticed diminishing returns on these thrusters since 2014, with the thrusters needing to fire up more often to give off the same amount of energy.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said Jones, chief engineer at JPL.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 thrusters were fired for a mere 10 milliseconds, to make small adjusments to Voyager's course. With that in mind, NASA chose to fire the older thrusters up and see if they could take over the attitude control adjustments. One interesting aspect of this was that the team waiting to hear a response on the thrusters had to wait 19 hours and 35 minutes for it to reach a Deep Space Network antenna located in California.

"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 JPL propulsion engineer, according to a NASA statement.

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