Voyager 1 Thrusters Fires Up First Time Since 1980

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NASA reported earlier this week that, for the first time in decades, Voyager 1 had its thrusters, which have remained otherwise dormant for almost 40 years, fired up to adjust its trajectory.

The backup rocket jets were originally created to help the Voyager 1 spacecraft aim its instruments at planets and moons on its journey through the solar system. It was actually the second Voyager probe to be launched, following the Voyager 2 on August 20th, 1977. Voyager 2 will join Voyager 1 in interstellar space in a few years, so discovering another way of reorienting these probes is a valuable technique for the future. The tiny rockets generate around 0.2 pounds of thrust, roughly equivalent to the force from the weight of a deck of playing cards. Ground control was able to reconfigure them to fire in a milliseconds-long pulse mode; the Verge noted the ability to use the TCM thrusters as a replacement for the main set "should extend [Voyager 1's] life by a couple of years".

But the "attitude control thrusters", the first option to make the spacecraft turn in space, have been wearing out.

The TCM thrusters were last fired on November 8, 1980, on approach to Saturn, and Voyager 1 used the miniature rocket engines in a more continuous firing mode, not in individual pulses as needed now, NASA officials said. 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.

After sending the commands on Tuesday, it took 19 hours and 35 minutes for the signal to reach Voyager.

The thrusters worked just fine.

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"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", Barber said.

The Voyager team now wants to change over to the TCM thrusters in January, during a process where the spacecraft has to switch on a heater for each thruster, which needs power - a scarce resource for this aging mission.

NASA fired up Voyager 1 thrusters for the first time in 37 years. In the year 40,272, Voyager 1 will get within two light years of a star in the Little Dipper constellation, and Voyager 2 will reach a similar distance from a star in the Andromeda constellation. Now, the Voyager team can utilize a set of four backup thrusters, dormant since 1980. Voyager 1 was already operating on its backup branch of attitude control thrusters.

Voyager 1 and 2 - both launched in 1977 - have been exploring farther-flung planets in our solar system.

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.

The spacecraft are powered by radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) that generate heat from the decay of plutonium-238.