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NASA fires up Voyager 1 backup thrusters after 37 years
04 December 2017, 01:28 | Cassandra Thompson
Voyager 1 Fires Dormant Thrusters for the First Time in 37 Years
Known as the Trajectory Correction Manoeuvre (TCM), these thrusters were last used in 1980 when the probe was flying towards the outer reaches of the solar system, passing by planets like Jupiter, Saturn and their moons. The small adjustments are needed to turn Voyager's antenna toward Earth, allowing it to continue sending communications.
The engineers tested their ability to orient the spacecraft using 10-millisecond pulses, which enabled the signals from the spacecraft reach an antenna in Goldstone, California, in about 19 hours and 35 minutes on Wednesday.
NASA launched the Voyager 1 space probe in 1977, and it remains the craft that's traveled furthest from Earth in human history.
The Voyager missions discovered the first active volcanoes beyond Earth, at Jupiter's moon Io, and hints of a subsurface ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa. Todd Barber, one of the propulsion experts who looked at the issue closely, said that "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test".
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.
So, to recap: these thrusters have sat in disuse since Jimmy Carter was president, they aren't designed for this sort of task, and they're a baker's dozen billion miles away.
NASA reported earlier this week that, for the first time in decades, Voyager 1 had its thrusters, which have remained otherwise dormant for almost 40 years, fired up to adjust its trajectory.
Humanity's most distant spacecraft surprised its operators by answering the call to fire up rockets that have not been used in nearly 40 years.
Now, the research team for Voyager at NASA was able to fire up a batch of four backup thrusters that have not been used since 1980.
The MR-103 thrusters, provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne, are created to fire in pulses to rotate the spacecraft and keep its 12-foot (3.7-metre) antenna pointed at Earth, but engineers have noticed more firings were needed recently, indicating the jets were losing some of their performance.
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. The team might conduct a similar test with Voyager 2's backups to ensure it can also send data back after it follows its older sibling to interstellar space in a few years' time.
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