The NASA spacecraft Voyager 1 has been traveling across space for nearly four decades. For the first time after 37 years of inactivity, it has fired up its thrusters. The incredible triumph of the Voyager 1 means it can communicate with Earth, from 13 billion miles away.
Voyager 1, NASA’s farthest and fastest spacecraft, is the only human-made object in interstellar space, the environment between the stars
Travelling at speeds of more than 35,000 mph, the Voyagers travel about 900,000 miles farther from Earth each day, a distance equal to roughly 36 times Earth’s circumference.
Five years ago, in August 2012, Voyager 1 crossed the edge of the heliosphere, called the heliopause, venturing for the first time into the space between stars, where no spacecraft had gone before.
The spacecraft, which has been flying for 40 years, relies on small devices called thrusters to orient itself so it can communicate with Earth, NASA explained in a statement.
These thrusters fire in tiny pulses, or ‘puffs’ which last mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet.
However, since 2014 NASA noticed the thrusters aboard Voyager 1 were badly degrading
Propulsion experts at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory analyzed options and predicted how the spacecraft would respond in different scenarios.
The team, made up of Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber, 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, said:
The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters.
On Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, Voyager engineers fired up the four thrusters and waited eagerly as the test results traveled through space, taking 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach an antenna in part of NASA’s Deep Space Network, at Goldstone, California.
Amazingly, the test was successful. Now, the Voyager team, based in Pasadena, California, is able to use a set of four backup thrusters, dormant since 1980.
The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test.
The mood was one of relief, joy, and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all.
NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft launched atop its Titan/Centaur-6 launch vehicle from the Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex in Florida on September 5, 1977, at 8:56 a.m. local time.
Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said:
With these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years without use, we will be able to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years.
The thruster test went so well, the team will likely do a similar test on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, which is also on course to enter interstellar space, likely within the next few years.