Firing Voyager's Thrusters After 37 Years

Pablo Tucker
December 5, 2017

Now 21 billion kilometres from earth and the only human-made object in interstellar space, Voyager 1 last made use of these thrusters in 1980 when it passed by Saturn.

Since nobody can physically check the condition of a probe 13 billion miles away, the team first gathered experts to assess the situation.

To NASA's delight, the four dormant thrusters came alive.

NASA receives transmission from a spacecraft that's 13 billion miles away from Earth

Sending a series of 10-millisecond pulses to try and orientate the spacecraft, NASA had to wait for 19 hours and 35 minutes to know if it had been successful. "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 Todd Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer.

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. Its antenna then points at Earth.

This is what the thrusters do. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however. As they get old, the thrusters need more puffs to generate a similar amount of energy than before. The trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters, which have not been used for 37 years, were brought back into play to take over the job.

Rather than using brief puffs, they were deployed in a continuous firing mode.

Voyager 1 sped past Jupiter and Saturn on its way out of the solar system.

To the team's excitement, not only did the TCM thrusters work for attitude control, they worked just as well as the thrusters that had been intended for the objective.

For the first time in 37 years and billions of miles traveled, NASA successfully fired up a set of thrusters on the Voyager 1 spacecraft. The MR-103 thrusters, delivered by Aerojet Rocketdyne, are meant to fire in pulses to spin the spacecraft and retain its 12-foot (3.7-meter) antenna directed towards Earth, but engineers have observed plenty of firings were required recently designating the jets were ceding some of their interpretation.

Voyager 1's scientific instruments are powered by plutonium, and that's expected to stop generating electricity by around 2023 or so - although it may last up to 2025.

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