Published: Sun, December 03, 2017
Science | By Eileen Rhodes

Voyager 1 Gets Help from Thrusters Dormant for 37 Years

Voyager 1 Gets Help from Thrusters Dormant for 37 Years

According to NASA, the TCM thrusters were located on the back side of the aircraft and previously were used in a more continuous firing mode during planetary flybys (the last such being Saturn in 1980).

Being able to use the backup thrusters means the lifespan of Voyager 1 has been extended by two or three years, added Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager.

Of course, many parts of the Voyager craft still work despite their age - they've been sending reliable telemetry back since launch, including the memorable data in 2012 indicating that Voyager 1 had entered interstellar space.

As humanity's first visitor to interstellar space, NASA's Voyager 1 has revealed itself to be a trooper, answering commands that take nearly 20 hours to arrive, and performing routine tasks and transmitting data back (another 20-hour one-way call) to the home planet. Then they waited 19 hours, 35 minutes for the test results to arrive at an antenna in Goldstone, California.

Voyager 1, NASA's farthest and fastest spacecraft, is the only human-made object in interstellar space, the environment between the stars.

All of Voyager's thrusters were developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however. They settled on what the space agency refers to as an "unusual solution:" to wake up the backup thrusters.

Now that the four thrusters have proved to be operable, the Voyager 1 will have a longer mission.

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On Friday, NASA said it had successfully dusted off the spacecraft's long-dormant backup thrusters for the first time in 37 years.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said Chris Jones, chief engineer at JPL. The similar kind of thruster, called the MR-103, travelled on other NASA probe as well, like Dawn and Cassini.

The Voyager missions discovered the first active volcanoes beyond Earth, at Jupiter's moon Io, and hints of a subsurface ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Todd Barber said: "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test". JPL operates Voyager and the Deep Space Network (DSN) that receives the signals.

Voyager 1 has a twin, Voyager 2, that flew past not only Jupiter and Saturn, but Uranus and Neptune, and is now headed out of the solar system on a different path. JPL says Voyager 2's attitude control thrusters are still fine, but they will likely do a test of its TCM thrusters to determine their status.

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