Firing Voyager's Thrusters After 37 Years

An artists impression of the NASA Voyager 1

With the probe billions of miles away, there's no opportunity to pull it over and look under the proverbial hood.

NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft has propelled a set of four control thrusters in the first place in 37 years granting the enduring enquiry, a novel method to point itself on its cruise into interstellar space 13 billion miles from Earth. The trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters, which have not been used for 37 years, were brought back into play to take over the job. The main thrusters fired off in pulses called "puffs" to subtly rotate the spacecraft.

The boosters were originally made to tweak the spacecraft's path through space as it gathered data from the solar system, including close encounters with Jupiter and Saturn in 1980.

The experts chose to use decades-old data and analyze the software coded in a legacy assembler language to establish a safe strategy for testing the thrusters.

Voyager 1 mission control breathed a sigh of both pride and relief, after a command to fire up the spacecraft's thrusters was obediently heeded.

Voyager 1 is now flying about 21bn km away from Earth, so the command took nearly 20 hours to reach it. The test went so well, that the team will also do a similar test on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the twin spacecraft of Voyager 1.

NASA successfully fires Voyager 1 thrusters after 37 years

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", said Todd Barber, a propulsion engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The team waited eagerly as the test results traveled through space, taking 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach an antenna in Goldstone, California, that is part of NASA's Deep Space Network.

Last week, experts learned that the TCM thrusters worked perfectly fine.

The last time these engines were run in 1980. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as diminished as Voyager 1's, however.

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

Voyager 1 is in interstellar space and Voyager 2 is now in the "Heliosheath" - the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas.

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