NASA fires 'Voyager 1' after 37 years

Erica Roy
December 4, 2017

The last time these thrusters were active was in November 1980, when the probe zipped by Saturn.

NASA made the decision to activate the disused thrusters because the thrusters they had been using to adjust the spacecraft's antenna weren't functioning well anymore. Since both Voyager 1 and 2 are supposed to last billions of years, the mementos of Earth that they carry could eventually be the only surviving trace of human life.

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.

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 left our solar system in August 2012 and entered interstellar space and is sending data back through NASA's Deep Space Network. According to Suzanne Dodd, NASA's program manager for Voyager, the fact that the thrusters still worked after more than three decades will allow the probe's mission to be extended out years longer than previously anticipated.

Voyager 1 was initially launched to investigate Jupiter, Saturn, and its neighboring moon Titan via flybys.

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Todd Barber from JPL also said: "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test". In the year 40,272, Voyager 1 will get within two light years of a star in the Little Dipper constellation, and Voyager 2 will reach a similar distance from a star in the Andromeda constellation.

For the first time since 1980, NASA activated Voyager 1's backup thrusters. It did. After almost four decades of dormancy, the Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactured thrusters fired perfectly.

These thrusters fire in tiny pulses, or "puffs", lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said Chris Jones of JPL.

Controllers at JPL plan to switch to the TCM thrusters full-time in January, giving Voyager 1's other rocket jets a rest. Voyager 1 was already operating on its backup branch of attitude control thrusters. Voyager 2 will join Voyager 1 in interstellar space in a few years, so discovering another way of reorienting these probes is a valuable technique for the future. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as diminished as Voyager 1's, however.

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