Voyager 1 investigation fires quiescent thrusters in interstellar space

A view of Jupiter and some of its moons taken from Voyager 1 when it passed in 1979. File

Fortunately, Voyager 1 seems to refuse to give up the ghost and its backup thrusters have been successfully fired up, even after being left unused for 37 years. The aging spacecraft, first launched in 1977, is the fastest and most well-traveled spacecraft ever launched by NASA.

Ground controllers were seeking some solution and they made up their mind to evaluate a discrete rocket pack with four indistinguishable MR-103 "trajectory correction maneuver", or TCM, thrusters on the hind sight of the spacecraft that were utilized to coax Voyager 1 and sustain it on course during flybys prematurely in the commission. Keeping a communication link open to a space probe that's now over 13 billion miles away from Earth isn't easy, and it requires precise adjustments to the spacecraft's orientation.

Today's society might be caught up in next year's model when it comes to cars or gadgets, but science fans can stand to appreciate the engineering that went into the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

"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 explained in a post on its website.

Considering how the odds were stacked against it, Voyager 1's new lease on life, even if just three years at most, is nothing short of a miracle. Voyager 2 is close on its heels - almost 11 billion miles from Earth.

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NASA plans to switch over to the formerly dormant thrusters in January.

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", said Todd Barber, a propulsion engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The team was delighted when the results of their test were resoundingly positive.

"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", he added, as quoted by Engadget. Still, NASA had to at least try, and Voyager 1 was one indeed up for the challenge.

Jupiter & moons Io, Europa, Ganymede & Callisto, as depicted by Voyager spacecraft. NASA scientists and propulsion experts weren't also sure if the thrusters would work in short bursts, if they worked at all. The current power levels for the spacecraft are about 249 watts and Voyager get its electrical power from the decay of plutonium-238 stored in three Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs).

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