Voyager 1 spacecraft thrusters fired up for first time since 1980

Artist's impression of Oumuamua the first confirmed interstellar asteroid

Ground controllers looked for a solution, and they chose to try out a separate rocket pack with four identical MR-103 "trajectory correction maneuver", or TCM, thrusters on the back side of the spacecraft that were used to nudge Voyager 1 and keep it on course during flybys earlier in the mission. Thrusters need more puffs over time to let out the same energy amount. At 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no mechanic shop nearby to get a tune-up. Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber analyzed options and predicted how the spacecraft would respond in different scenarios.

They agreed on an unusual solution: Try giving the job of orientation to a set of thrusters that had been asleep for 37 years.

Jones, chief engineer at JPL, stated that the Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and tested the software that was coded in an old assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters. We've learned about Jupiter's moons, Saturn's rings, Neptune's winds - all thanks to Voyager 1. The need to use them is not as immediate, however, because the primary thrusters of Voyager 2 have not significantly degraded.

The TCM thrusters were last fired on November 8, 1980, on approach to Saturn, and Voyager 1 used the miniature rocket engines in a more continuous firing mode, not in individual pulses as needed now, NASA officials said. Back then, the TCM thrusters were used in a more continuous firing mode; they had never been used in the brief bursts necessary to orient the spacecraft. Over the past four decades, as it flew past Jupiter and Saturn and eventually out into the vast reaches of space, it's been using tiny thrusters to position its antenna so it can communicate with Earth. The spacecraft turned and the mood at NASA shifted to jubilation.




It took 19 hours and 35 minutes for the command to fire its thrusters to reach Voyager 1, and another 19 hours and 35 minutes for NASA to hear back that the engines had worked.

"We got more excited with each milestone in the thruster test".

The Voyager team now wants to change over to the TCM thrusters in January, during a process where the spacecraft has to switch on a heater for each thruster, which needs power - a scarce resource for this aging mission. Voyager 2 will join Voyager 1 in interstellar space in a few years, so discovering another way of reorienting these probes is a valuable technique for the future.

It is expected that in the year 40,272, Voyager 1 will come within 1.7 light years of an obscure star in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear or Little Dipper) and in about 40,000 years, Voyager 2 will come within about 1.7 light years of a star called Ross 248, a small star in the constellation of Andromeda.

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