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NASA wakes up Voyager's slumbering thrusters 37 years later

NASA wakes up Voyager's slumbering thrusters 37 years later

"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.

And there's a lot we don't know about interstellar space - like, how does material from other stars interact with our solar system?

The Great Red Spot as seen from Voyager 1 This dramatic view of Jupiter's Great Red Spot and its surroundings was obtained by Voyager 1 on February 25, 1979, when the spacecraft was 5.7 million miles (9.2 million kilometers) from Jupiter. But these attitude control thrusters have been degrading over time, requiring more and more energy each time they've been used. Voyager 1 is now more than 13 billion miles away from Earth, so the commands took a while to be relayed. However, almost 20 hours after firing up the backup thrusters, engineers received a signal from the Voyager back on Earth, which meant their test was successful. They will likely also conduct similar tests on the backup thrusters on Voyager 2.

The Voyagers will continue on their journeys forever, but their ability to communicate back to Earth to tell the tales of their exploration is limited not only by the thrusters, but by the power sources that provide electricity and warmth to keep the instruments operating.

Humanity's most distant spacecraft surprised its operators by answering the call to fire up rockets that have not been used in nearly 40 years.




So NASA searched for a Plan B, eventually deciding to try using four "trajectory correction maneuver" (TCM) thrusters, located on the back side of Voyager 1. And the thrusters had never been tested for the 10-millisecond "puffs" needed for reorientation.

The secondary thrusters worked perfectly, orienting the probe just as the scientists had hoped.

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. JPL operates Voyager and the Deep Space Network (DSN) that receives the signals.

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", said Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena.

Voyager 1 is the only man-made object that has crossed the border of our solar system into interstellar space. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as diminished as Voyager 1's, however.


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