Voyager 1 probe fires long-dormant thrusters in interstellar space

Artist's impression of Oumuamua the first confirmed interstellar asteroid

Artist's impression of Oumuamua the first confirmed interstellar asteroid

"With these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years without use, we will be able to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years", said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager.

Voyager 1 was initially launched to investigate Jupiter, Saturn, and its neighboring moon Titan via flybys.

First launched all the way back on September 5th, 1977 the Voyager 1 space probe remains one of the United States' space exploration history's crowning achievements.

Since nobody can physically check the condition of a probe 13 billion miles away, the team first gathered experts to assess the situation.

Engineers had to do some detective work to make sure the thrusters could be safely tested. The team waited eagerly as the test results travelled into space, taking 19 hours 35 minutes to outreach an antenna in Goldstone, California, that is the section of NASA's Deep Space Network.

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The research team may also carry out the same kind of test for Voyager 2's TCM thrusters, following the success of Voyager 1's test. Voyager 2's attitude control thrusters, however, are not as reduced in quality as those of Voyager 1.

The spacecraft - now over 141 times the distance between the earth and the sun - is expected to go dark some time in the next five years as the remaining energy is depleted. To accurately fly by and point the spacecraft's instruments at a smorgasbord of targets, engineers used "trajectory correction maneuver", or TCM, thrusters that are identical in size and functionality to the attitude control thrusters, and are located on the back side of the spacecraft. The mission celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, but it's not just a lump of metal floating through interstellar space: that baby still runs. The thrusters fire in tiny pulses, or "puffs", lasting mere milliseconds to turn the spacecraft.

According to a statement, the Voyager team made a decision to go for a bit of a wildcard, agreeing on an "unusual solution" that involved firing up a set of four backup thrusters, which hadn't been used since 1980. On Nov. 29, it was found that the TCM thrusters were working as good as the attitude control thrusters. They will do so by switching over to backup TCM thrusters in early January of next year. Its fellow spacecraft, Voyager 2, is on its way there, too - and both carry a small American flag and a "Golden Record", which is packed with mementos from Earth in the form of pictures and sounds.

Illustration of the paths of Voyager 1 and 2. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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