NASA fires up Voyager 1 backup thrusters after 37 years

According to a statement, the Voyager team chose to go for a bit of a wildcard, agreeing on an "unusual solution" that involved firing up a set of four backup thrusters, which hadn't been used since 1980.

Most recently, the spacecraft was signalled to testfire a set of four small rocket thrusters that have not been operational for 37 years, to see whether the device could be remotely oriented more efficiently.

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. Since both Voyager 1 and 2 are supposed to last billions of years, the mementos of Earth that they carry could eventually be the only surviving trace of human life.

The thrusts lasted a mere 10-milliseconds, but due to the colossal distance between the probe and its home planet the commands took 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach Voyager.

Voyager 1 is the only man-made object that has crossed the border of our solar system into interstellar space.

Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California said that with these thrusters that are still working after 37 years without use, we would be capable of extending the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years.

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.

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", JPL propulsion engineer Todd Barber added in the blog post.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said Chris Jones, chief engineer at JPL. Now, the agency has ensured that it can maintain contact with the farthest spacecraft from Earth for at least two to three more years by waking up a set of backup thrusters it hasn't used since 1980.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft has fired-up its thruster engines for the first time in 37 years. 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.

However, Voyager 1 does have a set of four backup trajectory correction maneuver thrusters that haven't been used since the 1980s.

But after decades of operation, the "attitude control thrusters" that turn the spacecraft by firing tiny "puffs" had degraded.

Voyager 2 is also on course to enter interstellar space, likely within the next few years, and now, its attitude control thrusters are still functioning well. The plan right now is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January.

Illustration of the paths of Voyager 1 and 2.

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