Voyager 1 Fires Up its Old Thrusters After 37 Years

  • Voyager 1 Fires Up its Old Thrusters After 37 Years

Voyager 1 Fires Up its Old Thrusters After 37 Years

But these attitude control thrusters have been degrading over time, requiring more and more energy each time they've been used.

Voyager 1 had been using a set of "attitude control thrusters" to point the spacecraft's antenna at Earth in order to send back data.

Traveling at nearly 40,000 miles per hour, Voyager 1 is one of the fastest things we've ever put into space. To accurately fly by and point the spacecraft's instruments at a smorgasbord of targets, engineers used "trajectory correction maneuver", or TCM, thrusters that are identical in size and functionality to the attitude control thrusters, and are located on the back side of the spacecraft. As the TCMs are mounted on the craft's rear and Voyager doesn't need a speed boost - it's already doing 17.46 km/hour - they've been left alone since 1980.

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test".

Now, the Voyager team is able to use a set of four backup thrusters, dormant since 1980. And late the next day - after a 38-hour radio round trip - they learned that they worked and did the job just as well as the ACMS. She added that the Voyager team is so chuffed with the result, they may test the TCMs on Voyager 2, too, even though its ACMs continued to perform well.

Of course, many parts of the Voyager craft still work despite their age - they've been sending reliable telemetry back since launch, including the memorable data in 2012 indicating that Voyager 1 had entered interstellar space. It did. After almost four decades of dormancy, the Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactured thrusters fired perfectly.

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. And, it seems Voyager's still got a few tricks up its sleeve. "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 Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer. The spacecraft will have to turn on one heater on each of the four TCM thrusters, putting a further drain on Voyager 1's decaying plutonium power source.

This artist's depiction imagines what Voyager 1 looked like when crossing into interstellar space.

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.