Nasa successfully fires Voyager 1 thrusters after 37 years


"At 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no mechanic shop nearby to get a tune-up", Nasa said in a news release.

For vehicle read Voyager 1, and for engine read a set of four trajectory thrusters, and that's exactly what NASA boffins have done.

Voyager 1, the probe which became the first man-made object to leave the solar system in 2012, has been away from home for a long, long time - approximately 40 years. These thrusters fire in small pulses, lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet.

NASA made the decision to activate the disused thrusters because the thrusters they had been using to adjust the spacecraft's antenna weren't functioning well anymore. They agreed on an unusual solution: Try giving the job of orientation to a set of thrusters that had been asleep for 37 years. They got their answer 19 hours and 35 minutes later, the time it took for the results to reach Earth: The set of four thrusters worked perfectly.

However, we can still communicate with Voyager across that distance. It did. After almost four decades of dormancy, the Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactured thrusters fired perfectly. The similar kind of thruster, called the MR-103, travelled on other NASA probe as well, like Dawn and Cassini.

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The probe began its epic journey on September 5, 1977, sending us back a wealth of information, including some stunning photos of Saturn and Jupiter and their many moons.

According to NASA, the TCM thrusters were located on the back side of the aircraft and previously were used in a more continuous firing mode during planetary flybys (the last such being Saturn in 1980). But the "attitude control thrusters", the first option to make the spacecraft turn in space, have been wearing out.

This week, the scientists and engineers on the Voyager team did something very special. "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 JPL propulsion engineer.

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

Because of the success in the attempt to test Voyager 1's TCM thrusters, NASA plans to test the ones on Voyager 2. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena.