Voyager 1 investigation fires quiescent thrusters in interstellar space

Voyager 1 investigation fires quiescent thrusters in interstellar space

Voyager 1 investigation fires quiescent thrusters in interstellar space

NASA knew it needed to tweak its orientation in order to allow the craft to send and receive information, but that's much easier said than done, especially when the thrusters required to make that adjustment haven't even been woken up in almost four decades. Fortunately, Voyager 1 seems to refuse to give up the ghost and its backup thrusters have been successfully fired up, even after being left unused for 37 years.

Now 21 billion kilometres from earth and the only human-made object in interstellar space, Voyager 1 last made use of these thrusters in 1980 when it passed by Saturn. Voyager 1 reached interstellar space, which NASA described as "the environment between the stars", in 2012.

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Voyager 2 is also on course to enter interstellar space, likely within the next few years, and now, its attitude control thrusters are still functioning well. Voyager 1 is farther from Earth than Voyager 2, due to differences in their missions and trajectories, at an estimated 141 AU from Earth (1 AU is the distance between Earth and the sun). The same kind of thruster, called the MR-103, flew on other NASA spacecraft as well, such as Cassini and Dawn.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said Jones, chief engineer at JPL. It orients itself by firing several 10-millisecond puffs with its thrusters - problem is, the ones it regularly uses haven't been performing as well after four decades in space. Voyager is now 13 billion miles from Earth, with transmissions taking 19 hours and 35 minutes each way.

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On Wednesday, the engineers "learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters", said NASA. "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", Todd Barber, a propulsion expert in the team, noted. The team was delighted when the results of their test were resoundingly positive.

NASA plans to switch over to the formerly dormant thrusters in January. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however. They will likely also conduct similar tests on the backup thrusters on Voyager 2.

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