NASA fires Voyager 1's thrusters for first time in 37 years

Voyager spacecraft

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. Those served to make minute adjustments to the craft's orientation to keep its antenna pointed back at Earth and maintain communications with us as it flies through space.

While some spacecraft get the chance to go out in a blaze of glory, others are in it for the long haul - Voyager 1 more so than any other.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said Jones, chief engineer at JPL.

They wanted to reposition Voyager 1, which, at 21 billion kilometres away is the space agency's most far-flung spaceship. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, has fired up a pair of thrusters that haven't been used for 37 years.

They have made discoveries such as active volcanoes on Jupiter's moon and the intricacies of Saturn's rings. Those thrusters aren't functioning well anymore, so NASA engineers figured out how to revive a different set of thrusters called "trajectory correction maneuver" (TCM) thrusters.

On Tuesday, NASA sent the command to fire the TCM thrusters in 10-millisecond pulses as a test to see if they could reorient the spacecraft. NASA last called on those thrusters in late 1980.

"Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters", the statement said. Now, nearly four decades later, they've come back to life without a hitch to take over for the failing attitude control thrusters. And, it seems Voyager's still got a few tricks up its sleeve.

"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".

Voyager 1 will switch back to its other thrusters once the probe no longer has enough power for the heaters, officials said. It was a message from Voyager 1, the only man-made object in interstellar space.

NASA says the test went so well it will try a similar switch on Voyager 2, which is set to enter interstellar space in the next few years.

The Voyager spacecraft were built by JPL, which continues to operate both. 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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