Voyager 1 fires up its thrusters after 37 years

NASA receives transmission from a spacecraft that's 13 billion miles away from Earth

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched 16 days apart in 1977.

Recall that in September 2013, NASA announced that "Voyager 1" became the first artificial device, which left the Solar system and out into interstellar space.

If you tried to start a auto that's been sitting in a garage for decades, you might not expect the engine to respond. With this example before them, NASA laid a more ambitious message aboard Voyager 1 and 2, a kind of time capsule, meant to relate a story of our world to aliens.

The thrusters that the Voyager 1 has been using are called "attitude control thrusters" and the engineers at the space agency spotted that they had been degrading since the year 2014.


More detail on the TCM thrusters can be found here. NASA plans to switch to the backup thrusters in January and when there's no longer enough power for those, switch back to the main ones.

NASA has nailed an engine test on a spacecraft 13 billion miles away. 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.

"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. The thrusters were fired for a mere 10 milliseconds, to make small adjusments to Voyager's course. NASA scientists and propulsion experts weren't also sure if the thrusters would work in short bursts, if they worked at all.

Still, the team though the TCM thrusters might suit their purposes, so on November 28, they made a decision to fire them up with 10-millisecond pulses to test if they could be a viable replacement for the almost spent thrusters. Voyager 1 is farther from Earth than Voyager 2, due to differences in their missions and trajectories, at an estimated 141 AU from Earth (1 AU is the distance between Earth and the sun). "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 Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer.

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