After 37 Years Voyager 1 Fires Up Thrusters

05 December, 2017, 01:53 | Author: Dustin Murphy
  • Voyager depicted in this NASA artist concept handout image is still sending data back to Earth daily more than 40 years after its launch

And even after Voyager 1 dies - or if we lose contact with it - the spacecraft is ready to achieve great things.

Voyager 1 and 2 - both launched in 1977 - have been exploring farther-flung planets in our solar system.

The MR-103 thrusters, provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne, are created to fire in pulses to rotate the spacecraft and keep its 12-foot (3.7-metre) antenna pointed at Earth, but engineers have noticed more firings were needed recently, indicating the jets were losing some of their performance.

Since 2014, engineers have noticed that the thrusters Voyager 1 has been using to orient the spacecraft, called "attitude control thrusters", have been degrading. According to Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd, the reactivated thrusters should help extend the life of the probe for another "two to three years".

Voyager 1 is the only human-made object flying outside of our solar system, and it's still communicating with Earth by way of the Deep Space Network, which allows engineers to send it instructions. The last time these thrusters were active was in November 1980, when the probe zipped by Saturn.

As NASA announced last Friday, Voyager 1's been using its "attitude control thrusters" (ACMs) for decades, to nudge the probe so that its antenna points at Earth and it can stay in touch. Now, nearly four decades later, they've come back to life without a hitch to take over for the failing attitude control thrusters.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters. The radio waves traveled for 19 hours and 35 minutes before reaching Voyager 1 13 billion miles away; 19 hours and 35 minutes after that, they got the results of their little experiment.

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test. 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 Todd Barber, a propulsion engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January.

Voyager 1 will switch back to its other thrusters once the probe no longer has enough power for the heaters, officials said.

The JPL will also test out the TCM thrusters on Voyager 1's twin, Voyager 2, although NASA says that that spacecraft's attitude control thrusters are in better shape.

Scientists expect Voyager 2 to make the crossing into interstellar space within a few years, heading in a different direction from the sun.



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