Voyager mission extended as backup thrusters fire back to life

Gwen Vasquez
December 3, 2017

The unmanned spaceship was launched along with Voyager 2, its twin, more than 40 years ago to explore the outer planets of our solar system, travelling further than any human-made object in history. These thrusters fire in small pulses, lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet.

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.

As JPL said, "at 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no mechanic shop nearby to get a tune-up".

The Voyager team gathered a group of momentum specialist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena, California, to investigate the puzzle.

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Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber analysed options and predicted how the spacecraft would respond in different scenarios, NASA said. They agreed on an unusual solution: Try giving the job of orientation to a set of thrusters that had been asleep for 37 years.

This additional life is important for mission controllers working with Voyager because the more data they can pull from this spacecraft, the better. The last time they were needed was when Voyager 1 passed Saturn on November 8, 1980. Back then, the TCM thrusters were utilized in a more constant firing mode; they had never been used in the brief explosions necessary to orient the spacecraft. 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. 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. But this past Tuesday, engineers fired them up anyway, and after 19 hours of waiting for the results to transmit from Voyager's antenna to Earth, they learned that it actually worked. When there's no longer enough power to supply heat, the spacecraft will switch back to its primary thrusters.

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test".

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. It's expected to enter deep space within the next few years.

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