Voyager 1 probe fires long-dormant thrusters in interstellar space

Going bravely where no spacecraft has gone before

"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.

Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 and flew past Jupiter and Saturn in 1979 and 1980 respectively.

Voyager 1 is the most distant human-made object, and scientists announced in 2013 the craft's crossing of the boundary between the sun's influence and interstellar space, making it the first mission to explore the void between the stars. Voyager 1 reached interstellar space, which NASA described as "the environment between the stars", in 2012.

On top of the the backups sitting idle for so long, while being 13 billion miles from Earth, there was a third problem: the backups weren't used for "attitude control". And yet, NASA just fired thrusters on the spacecraft that have been dormant for 37 years.

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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.

The thruster test went so well, the team will likely do a similar test on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the twin spacecraft of Voyager 1. However, we can still communicate with Voyager across that distance. The need to use them is not as immediate, however, because the primary thrusters of Voyager 2 have not significantly degraded. Humanity's farthest and longest-lived spacecraft are celebrating 40 years in August and September 2017. The thrusters fire in tiny pulses that last for a few milliseconds, which subtly rotates the spacecraft to enable its antennae to point toward Earth.

The TCM thrusters were last fired on November 8, 1980, on approach to Saturn, and Voyager 1 used the miniature rocket engines in a more continuous firing mode, not in individual pulses as needed now, NASA officials said.

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 performed flawlessly, sending the results of the testfires back to NASA's globally-positioned terrestrial Deep Space Network. Its fellow spacecraft, Voyager 2, is on its way there, too - and both carry a small American flag and a "Golden Record", which is packed with mementos from Earth in the form of pictures and sounds. "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", said Todd Barber of JPL. 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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