After 37 years, Voyager 1 has fired up its trajectory thrusters

Emilio Banks
December 4, 2017

NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft has fired a set of four control thrusters for the first time in 37 years, giving the long-lived probe a new way to point itself on its cruise into interstellar space 13 billion miles from Earth. (It's so lonely.) Now it's almost 21 billion kilometeres from Earth.

In the early days of the mission, Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter, Saturn, and important moons of each. It then headed out into the further reaches of our solar system and in August 2012 passed into interstellar space.

Artist's concept of the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

The engineers tested their ability to orient the spacecraft using 10-millisecond pulses, which enabled the signals from the spacecraft reach an antenna in Goldstone, California, in about 19 hours and 35 minutes on Wednesday. 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 spacecraft - now over 141 times the distance between the earth and the sun - is expected to go dark some time in the next five years as the remaining energy is depleted.

The Voyager team chose to try using the TCM thrusters, which were created to accurately point the spacecraft as it passed Jupiter and Saturn and their moons. (They are not nuclear reactors.) The RTGs lose about 4 watts of power each year and the spacecraft are moving further away.

The spacecraft had been relying on its primary thrusters to keep it oriented, but these have degraded over time.

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Experts at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California chose to turn to four backup thrusters that were last used on November 8, 1980.

And on the next day, November 29, the Voyager team had their answer - The TCM thrusters worked perfectly.

The team will switch over to the TCM thrusters in January, but there is a drawback: they require heaters to operate, which will draw on the probe's limited power.

Voyager 1 has a twin, Voyager 2, that flew past not only Jupiter and Saturn, but Uranus and Neptune, and is now headed out of the solar system on a different path. JPL says Voyager 2's attitude control thrusters are still fine, but they will likely do a test of its TCM thrusters to determine their status.

Todd Barber from JPL also said: "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test". This finding prompted NASA engineers at the JPL in Pasadena, California to examine the issue.

Illustration of the paths of Voyager 1 and 2. California. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Other reports by TheSundaySentinel

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