Voyager 1 Gets Help from Thrusters Dormant for 37 Years


USA space agency NASA has successfully fired up a set of thrusters aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft after 37 years of being unused. Over the next few years it completed fly-bys of Jupiter, Saturn, and Titan-Saturn's largest moon.

And there's a lot we don't know about interstellar space - like, how does material from other stars interact with our solar system?

Artist's depiction of the Voyager spacecraft.

The thrusters are an essential component to maintain the probe's communications, as they're used to reorient the direction of its antennae back toward the Earth. It's now more than 11.7 billion miles away, past the heliopause to the point that it can observe the solar system from the outside.

Turns out the thrusters worked just fine.

On Tuesday, Voyager engineers sent a command to fire the four "trajectory correction maneuver (TCM)" thrusters and it took 19 hours and 35 minutes for the test results to reach an antenna in Goldstone, California.

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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.

And even after Voyager 1 dies - or if we lose contact with it - the spacecraft is ready to achieve great things.

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. But because Voyager 1's last planetary encounter was Saturn, the Voyager team hadn't required using the TCM thrusters since November 8, 1980. And yet, when scientists at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory chose to try firing up its old thrusters, they still worked. Its fellow spacecraft, Voyager 2, is on its way there, too - and both carry a small American flag and a "Golden Record", which is packed with mementos from Earth in the form of pictures and sounds.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", said Chris Jones, chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The unmanned spaceship was launched along with its twin, Voyager 2, more than 40 years ago to explore the outer planets of our solar system, traveling further than any human-made object in history. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena. They will do so by switching over to backup TCM thrusters in early January of next year. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however. California. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.