Published: Sun, December 03, 2017
Sci-tech | By Carrie Guzman

NASA fires 'Voyager 1' after 37 years

NASA fires 'Voyager 1' after 37 years

As humanity's first visitor to interstellar space, NASA's Voyager 1 has revealed itself to be a trooper, answering commands that take nearly 20 hours to arrive, and performing routine tasks and transmitting data back (another 20-hour one-way call) to the home planet.

Mission controllers are now planning to do the same test on Voyager 2, Voyager 1's twin spacecraft that's moving toward interstellar space now.

Over the past 30 years Voyager 1's primary thrusters - used to orient the spacecraft's communication dish toward Earth - have been seen to require increasing levels of power resources to function. These thrusters fire in small pulses, lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet.

The Voyager team made a decision to try using the TCM thrusters, which were created to accurately point the spacecraft as it passed Jupiter and Saturn and their moons.

Suzanne Dodd, Voyager's project manager at JPL, said that the ability to use those thrusters will extend the spacecraft's life "by two to three years". The Voyager team assembled a group of propulsion experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, for the job.

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"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", Jet Propulsion Laboratory chief engineer Chris Jones wrote.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

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. The last time it did so was in 1980.

On Wednesday, the engineers "learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters", said NASA.

So the Voyager 1 engineers came up with a new plan. "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 Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer.

The thruster test went so well; the team will likely do a similar analysis on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the counterpart spacecraft of Voyager 1. With this example before them, NASA laid a more ambitious message aboard Voyager 1 and 2, a kind of time capsule, meant to relate a story of our world to aliens. JPL operates Voyager and the Deep Space Network (DSN) that receives the signals.

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