NASA May Have Added Years To Voyager 1's Life

Is there anybody out there? Voyager 1 fires up thrusters dormant since 1980

As Voyager 1 carries a finite quantity of fuel, thirsty thrusters are not welcome. Thankfully, Voyager also has another similar set, called trajectory control maneuver thrusters, that were used in the years after its launch to guide the craft around the various planets it passed on the way out of the solar system. The team will use the thrusters until they can no longer use the heaters, and will then switch back to the attitude control thrusters that they've been relying on. We've learned about Jupiter's moons, Saturn's rings, Neptune's winds - all thanks to Voyager 1.

Ground controllers looked for a solution, and they chose to try out a separate rocket pack with four identical MR-103 "trajectory correction maneuver", or TCM, thrusters on the back side of the spacecraft that were used to nudge Voyager 1 and keep it on course during flybys earlier in the mission.

"With these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years without use, we will be able to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years", said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

Saturn as seen by Voyager
Saturn as seen by Voyager

They wanted to reposition Voyager 1, which, at 21 billion kilometres away is the space agency's most far-flung spaceship.

So last Tuesday, November 28th, the Voyager team told the far-off probe to fire the TCM thrusters. Back then, the TCM thrusters were used in a more continuous firing mode; they had never been used in the brief bursts necessary to orient the spacecraft. It did. After almost four decades of dormancy, the Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactured thrusters fired perfectly.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said Jones, chief engineer at JPL.

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As NASA announced last Friday, Voyager 1's been using its "attitude control thrusters" (ACMs) for decades, to nudge the probe so that its antenna points at Earth and it can stay in touch. Data still flows from Voyager to Earth, though it takes around 19 hours to make the trip. And, it seems Voyager's still got a few tricks up its sleeve.

The team will switch over to the TCM thrusters in January, but there is a drawback: they require heaters to operate, which will draw on the probe's limited power.

This artist's depiction imagines what Voyager 1 looked like when crossing into interstellar space.

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The test went so well that not only will Voyager 1 be switching over to the backup thrusters until there's no longer enough power to keep them warm, but they're looking into to doing the same thing for its twin, Voyager 2 - after proper testing, of course.

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