NASA efficiently fires Voyager 1 thrusters after 37 years

04 December, 2017, 01:25 | Author: Raquel Nash
  • After 37 years, Voyager 1 has fired up its trajectory thrusters

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.

Yesterday, NASA announced that it has successfully fired up four of Voyager 1's backup thrusters, which haven't been used since 1980, which should extend its life by a couple of years. Over time, the thrusters need more puffs to give off the equivalent quantity of power.

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

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. Back then, the TCM thrusters were used in a more continuous firing mode; they had never been used in the brief bursts necessary to orient the spacecraft. The four Aerojet Rocketdyne MR-103 trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) engines were last fired in 1980 when the spacecraft was passing Saturn. After adjusting the probe's position, it took roughly 20 hours for NASA to receive a return signal. The probe now uses its attitude control thrusters to make tiny corrections - firing for only milliseconds at a time - to rotate it to point its antenna towards Earth. The team waited eagerly as the test results travelled into space, taking 19 hours 35 minutes to outreach an antenna in Goldstone, California, that is the section of NASA's Deep Space Network. On November 28th, they finally test-fired the backup thrusters, which worked perfectly and rotated the spacecraft just as well as the primary ones can.

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"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters". "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 propulsion engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. The plan right now is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January.

Unfortunately, the secondary thrusters require power to provide heat to operate - a limited resource on the tiny probe.

To reawaken these dormant thrusters the team had to go back to the original Voyager documentation.

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched 16 days apart in 1977. 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. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena.

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