Voyager 1 Thrusters Fires Up First Time Since 1980

Going bravely where no spacecraft has gone before

But those thrusters had not been used in 37 years.

For the first time since 1980, NASA activated Voyager 1's backup thrusters.

Ground controllers looked for a solution, and they made a decision to try out a separate rocket pack with four identical MR-103 "trajectory correction maneuver", or TCM, thrusters on the back side of the spacecraft that were used to nudge Voyager 1 and keep it on course during flybys earlier in the mission. Over time, the thrusters need more puffs to give off the equivalent quantity of power. (It's so lonely.) Now it's almost 21 billion kilometeres from Earth.

The Voyager team assembled a group of propulsion experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to study the problem. Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber analyzed options and predicted how the spacecraft would respond in different scenarios.

They looked for possible solutions and finally settled for starting a set of four thrusters that are identical in size and functionality but have been dormant for 37 years. We've learned about Jupiter's moons, Saturn's rings, Neptune's winds - all thanks to Voyager 1.

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.

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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. They reconfigured the whole system to fire 10-millisecond pulses, or brief bursts, to orient the spacecraft on 28 November and received the signals of the successful firing after almost 20 hours on 29 November.

Aerojet Rocketdyne developed all of the Voyager's thrusters. The spacecraft turned and the mood at NASA shifted to jubilation. To indeed fly by and point the spacecraft's instruments at a buffet of targets, engineers used "trajectory correction maneuver", thrusters that are indistinguishable in size and functionality to the attitude control thrusters, and are found on the back side of the probe. The team waited eagerly as the test results travelled into space, taking 19 hours 35 minutes to outreach an antenna in Goldstone, California, that is the section of NASA's Deep Space Network.

The secondary thrusters worked perfectly, orienting the probe just as the scientists had hoped.

"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".

The research team may also carry out the same kind of test for Voyager 2's TCM thrusters, following the success of Voyager 1's test. Voyager 2's attitude control thrusters, however, are not as reduced in quality as those of Voyager 1.

Illustration of the paths of Voyager 1 and 2. Although the devices are still working, a few years ago engineers began to notice they were deteriorating.

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