Humanity's Most Distant Traveler Still Going After 37 Years, 13 Billion Miles

Is there anybody out there? Voyager 1 fires up thrusters dormant since 1980

Voyager 1 performed flawlessly, sending the results of the testfires back to NASA's globally-positioned terrestrial Deep Space Network.

The spacecraft had been relying on its primary thrusters to keep it oriented, but these have degraded over time. These thrusters fire in small pulses, lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet. These backup thrusters will give Voyager an extra year or two of life, before it loses connection with its home planet and disappears into the abyss of space.

Launched in 1977, the interstellar space probe Voyager 1 - a product of the US-funded NASA technology-incubation center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in California - has broken all records for spaceflight by travelling some 13 billion miles from the sun, farther than any man made device, while remaining a viable scientific platform.

The Voyager team assembled a group of propulsion experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to study the problem.

Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber analysed options and predicted how the spacecraft would respond in different scenarios, NASA said. They agreed on an unusual solution: Try giving the job of orientation to a set of thrusters that had been asleep for 37 years. However, almost 20 hours after firing up the backup thrusters, engineers received a signal from the Voyager back on Earth, which meant their test was successful.

However, we can still communicate with Voyager across that distance. The four Aerojet Rocketdyne MR-103 trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) engines were last fired in 1980 when the spacecraft was passing Saturn.

Saturn as seen by Voyager
Saturn as seen by Voyager

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.

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).

So the Voyager 1 engineers came up with a new plan.

The test went so well that not only will Voyager 1 be switching over to the backup thrusters until there's no longer enough power to keep them warm, but they're looking into to doing the same thing for its twin, Voyager 2 - after proper testing, of course. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however. The mission celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, but it's not just a lump of metal floating through interstellar space: that baby still runs.

The Voyager spacecraft were built by JPL, which continues to operate both.

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