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Voyager 1 probe fires long-dormant thrusters in interstellar space

05 December 2017
Voyager 1 probe fires long-dormant thrusters in interstellar space

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.

As NASA announced last Friday, Voyager 1's been using its "attitude control thrusters" (ACMs) for decades, to nudge the probe so that its antenna points at Earth and it can stay in touch.

So NASA's plan B was to fire up its four back-up thrusters, on the rear of Voyager 1, for the first time since 1980.

The backup rocket jets were originally created to help the Voyager 1 spacecraft aim its instruments at planets and moons on its journey through the solar system. But because Voyager 1's last planetary encounter was Saturn, the Voyager team hadn't needed to use the TCM thrusters since November 8, 1980.

Traveling at nearly 40,000 miles per hour, Voyager 1 is one of the fastest things we've ever put into space. The radio waves traveled for 19 hours and 35 minutes before reaching Voyager 1 13 billion miles away; 19 hours and 35 minutes after that, they got the results of their little experiment.

Man, they just don't build 'em like they used to.

Engineers had to do some detective work to make sure the thrusters could be safely tested.

"We got more excited with each milestone in the thruster test". Using the thrusters will take some extra energy, a precious commodity for the aging spacecraft, but NASA says the maneuver will add a few years to the mission's life.

The team will switch over to the TCM thrusters in January, but there is a drawback: they require heaters to operate, which will draw on the probe's limited power.

Each Voyager spacecraft carries four TCM thrusters and 12 small attitude control rocket jets, divided into two redundant chains of six thrusters.

At present, the Voyager 1 spacecraft is 21 billion kilometers from Earth, or about 141 times the distance between the Earth and Sun.

Fortunately, the Voyagers are equipped with backup thrusters included with this eventuality in mind.

The thruster test went so well, the team will likely do a similar test on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the twin spacecraft of Voyager 1. That trickle of information will stop in 2025 when the radioisotope thermoelectric generators cease to provide enough power to run any instruments. It was a message from Voyager 1, the only man-made object in interstellar space.

Voyager 1 left our solar system in August 2012 and entered interstellar space and is sending data back through NASA's Deep Space Network.