After 37 years, Voyager 1 has fired up its trajectory thrusters

NASA fired up Voyager 1 thrusters for the first time in 37 years. The spacecraft is currently traveling in interstellar space

Voyager 1's sibling craft, Voyager 2, is 10.8 billion miles (over 17 million kilometers) from Earth and will likely undergo a similar procedure, though per NASA, its main thruster set is in better condition.

NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft continues its journey into interstellar space and just got help from on-board thrusters that have not been used for 37 years.

Voyager 1 is the only human-made object flying outside of our solar system, and it's still communicating with Earth by way of the Deep Space Network, which allows engineers to send it instructions. These thrusters fire in tiny pulses, or "puffs", lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Todd Barber said: "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test".

The Voyager team assembled a group of propulsion experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to study the problem. They are identical to the attitude control thrusters and located on the back of the spacecraft. But this past Tuesday, engineers fired them up anyway, and after 19 hours of waiting for the results to transmit from Voyager's antenna to Earth, they learned that it actually worked.

Jones, chief engineer at JPL, stated that the Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and tested the software that was coded in an old assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters. The four Aerojet Rocketdyne MR-103 trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) engines were last fired in 1980 when the spacecraft was passing Saturn.

But after four decades of exploration which have taken in fly-bys of Jupiter and Saturn, engineers found that the primary thrusters which orient the space probe had severely degraded. The last time they were needed was when Voyager 1 passed Saturn on November 8, 1980.

In 2014, mission managers started noticing that some of Voyager 1's still in service thrusters - called attitude control thrusters - weren't working in top form, NASA said.

It is expected that in the year 40,272, Voyager 1 will come within 1.7 light years of an obscure star in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear or Little Dipper) and in about 40,000 years, Voyager 2 will come within about 1.7 light years of a star called Ross 248, a small star in the constellation of Andromeda.

The team will switch over to the TCM thrusters in January, but there is a drawback: they require heaters to operate, which will draw on the probe's limited power.

Illustration of the paths of Voyager 1 and 2.

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