Voyager 1 spacecraft thrusters fired up for first time since 1980


Now that the four thrusters have proved to be operable, the Voyager 1 will have a longer mission. Now, the agency has ensured that it can maintain contact with the farthest spacecraft from Earth for at least two to three more years by waking up a set of backup thrusters it hasn't used since 1980. They are identical to the attitude control thrusters and located on the back of the spacecraft. Over time, the thrusters require more puffs to give off the same amount of energy. The Voyager team assembled a group of propulsion experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to study the problem and come up with a "Plan B".

JPL chief engineer Chris Jones added: "The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters". Some of the spacecrafts' significant findings include identifying the first active volcanoes beyond Earth and coming across Saturn's biggest moon, CNN reports. The thrusters fire in tiny pulses that last for a few milliseconds, which subtly rotates the spacecraft to enable its antennae to point toward Earth.

The last time the TCM thrusters were used was on November 8, 1980, during Voyager 1's encounter with Saturn, after which, they were not needed because there were no more planetary encounters.The experts searched up old date from years ago and studied the software coded in an assembler language, which was outdated, to ensure that the thrusters could be worked safely. It recently extended the Dawn spacecraft's mission over Ceres for a second time, while New Horizons is on its way to check out a small icy body called 2014 MU69 in January 2019. The four Aerojet Rocketdyne MR-103 trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) engines were last fired in 1980 when the spacecraft was passing Saturn. The probe now uses its attitude control thrusters to make tiny corrections - firing for only milliseconds at a time - to rotate it to point its antenna towards Earth. Then they waited 19 hours, 35 minutes for the test results to arrive at an antenna in Goldstone, California.

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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", said Todd Barber of JPL. The mood was one of relaxation, joy and wonder after observing these well-rested thrusters pull up the baton as if no time had moved at all. When there's no longer enough power to supply heat, the spacecraft will switch back to its primary thrusters.

The Voyager team chose to try using the TCM thrusters, which were created to accurately point the spacecraft as it passed Jupiter and Saturn and their moons.

Illustration of the paths of Voyager 1 and 2.