Humanity's Most Distant Traveler Still Going After 37 Years, 13 Billion Miles


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).

The engineers fired up the thrusters on Tuesday and tested their ability to turn Voyager using 10-millisecond pulses.

But after four decades of exploration which have taken in fly-bys of Jupiter and Saturn, engineers found that the primary thrusters which orient the space probe had severely degraded.

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.

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In 2014, mission managers started noticing that some of Voyager 1's still in service thrusters - called attitude control thrusters - weren't working in top form, NASA said. Yesterday, NASA announced that it has successfully fired up four of Voyager 1's backup thrusters, which haven't been used since 1980, which should extend its life by a couple of years. At 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no technician workshop nearby to get a tune-up. Then they waited 19 hours, 35 minutes for the test results to arrive at an antenna in Goldstone, California.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said Chris Jones of JPL.

This additional life is important for mission controllers working with Voyager because the more data they can pull from this spacecraft, the better. The similar kind of thruster, called the MR-103, travelled on other NASA probe as well, like Dawn and Cassini.

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", JPL propulsion engineer Todd Barber added in the blog post. The mood was one of relaxation, joy and wonder after observing these well-rested thrusters pull up the baton as if no time had moved at all.

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The team will switch over to the TCM thrusters in January, but there is a drawback: they require heaters to operate, which will draw on the probe's limited power.

The secondary thrusters worked perfectly, orienting the probe just as the scientists had hoped.

In 1977, the twin spacecrafts Voyager 1 and 2 were launched, 16 days apart. 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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