Voyager 1: NASA Fires Up Dormant Space Probe Thrusters For The First Time Since 1980

By Samriddhi Dastidar | Dec 03, 2017 07:26 AM EST

NASA has successfully fired up a batch of thrusters on the Voyager 1, the only man-made object traveling in interstellar space, after 37 years of being dormant.

Voyager 1 Thrusters Fire Up

Voyager 1, which was launched in 1977, depends on thrusters, which are small devices that orient the spacecraft to communicate with Earth. The thrusters fire in tiny pulses that last for a few milliseconds, which subtly rotates the spacecraft to enable its antennae to point toward Earth.

Now, the research team for Voyager at NASA was able to fire up a batch of four backup thrusters that have not been used since 1980.

"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," Voyager’s Project Manager, Suzanne Dodd said.

Trajectory Correction Maneuver Thrusters

Since 2014, the Voyager team has observed that the spacecraft thrusters, known as the attitude control thrusters, have been degrading due to a lack of tune-up. Thrusters need more puffs over time to let out the same energy amount.

To address the problem, the research team agreed to give the orientation job to a batch of dormant thrusters called trajectory correction maneuver thrusters.

The last time the TCM thrusters were used was on Nov. 8, 1980, during Voyager 1’s encounter with Saturn, after which, they were not needed because there were no more planetary encounters.The experts searched up old date from years ago and studied the software coded in an assembler language, which was outdated, to ensure that the thrusters could be worked safely.

The research team worked up the set of TCM thrusters on Nov. 28, to test their capability to maneuver the spacecraft with pulses that lasted for 10 milliseconds. On Nov. 29, it was found that the TCM thrusters were working as good as the attitude control thrusters.

The Voyager team now wants to change over to the TCM thrusters in January, during a process where the spacecraft has to switch on a heater for each thruster, which needs power — a scarce resource for this aging mission. The experts will turn back to the attitude control thrusters once there's insufficient power to operate the heaters.

The research team may also carry out the same kind of test for Voyager 2’s TCM thrusters, following the success of Voyager 1’s test. Voyager 2’s attitude control thrusters, however, are not as reduced in quality as those of Voyager 1.

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