Voyager 1 spacecraft fires up its thrusters after almost 40 years

Posted December 06, 2017

The Voyager 1 probe has been zooming through the void for 40 years and is the only human spacecraft travelling through interstellar space, the bleak expanse of nothingness between stars.

The satellite relies on "attitude control" thrusters to orient itself so it can communicate with Earth using the Deep Space Network.

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. Voyager is now 13 billion miles from Earth, with transmissions taking 19 hours and 35 minutes each way.

NASA/JPL-CaltechThe Voyager team is able to use a set of four backup thrusters, dormant since 1980.

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched 16 days apart in 1977.

The TCM thrusters are identical to the degrading attitude control thrusters, only they are located on the back side of the satellite.

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"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said the chief engineer of JPL, Chris Jones. The operations will continue over the next month, and the whole process could extend the spacecraft's life by two to three years.

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test". As they get old, the thrusters need more puffs to generate a similar amount of energy than before. Consequently, a week ago, Voyager engineers sent a command to fire the four "trajectory correction maneuver (TCM)" thrusters and it took 19 hours and 35 minutes for the test results to reach an antenna in Goldstone, California.

The last time these engines were run in 1980.

The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January.

The additional rocket jets were initially drafted to assist the Voyager 1 spacecraft target its apparatus to planets and moons on its expedition through the solar system.

Voyager 1 is in interstellar space and Voyager 2 is now in the "Heliosheath" - the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas.