Science

Voyager 1 back on track after firing of old thrusters

Voyager 1 back on track after firing of old thrusters

Voyager 1 is now more than 13 billion miles away from Earth, so the commands took a while to be relayed.

The US space firm NASA has said a set of thrusters aboard the Voyager 1 probe, the unique human-made object in interstellar space, have been successfully fired up after 37 years without practice. The team will use the thrusters until they can no longer use the heaters, and will then switch back to the attitude control thrusters that they've been relying on.

The Voyager team gathered a group of momentum specialist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena, California, to investigate the puzzle. They allowed on an exceptional solution: Try giving the job of orientation to a set of thrusters that had been resting for 37 years.

Instead of continuing to use the attitude control thrusters, they wanted to try to turn on the spacecraft's trajectory correction maneuver thrusters, which hadn't been used for almost 40 years.

JPL chief engineer Chris Jones added: "The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters". The four Aerojet Rocketdyne MR-103 trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) engines were last fired in 1980 when the spacecraft was passing Saturn.

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.

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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). "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", Todd Barber, a propulsion engineer, said in the statement. On Tuesday, JPL engineers commanded the thrusters to fire and waited for Voyager's response.

The thrusters worked just fine.

Because of the success in the attempt to test Voyager 1's TCM thrusters, NASA plans to test the ones on Voyager 2.

In 1977, the twin spacecrafts Voyager 1 and 2 were launched, 16 days apart. 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.

Voyager 2 is also on course to enter interstellar space, likely within the next few years. JPL operates Voyager and the Deep Space Network (DSN) that receives the signals. 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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