For almost 40 years have the Voyager 1’s thrusters remained inactive until NASA scientists turned them on in November of 2017. This ‘operation’ is expected to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years,
NASA’s Voyager 1 probe has responded to engineers’ orders at a distance of 20 billion km in interstellar space.
NASA engineers successfully turned on Voyager 1’s thrusters after they remained for nearly 40 years unused. This operation will extend the space probe’s life up to three more years.
NASA engineers say that its like turning on the engine of a car that has spent decades in a garage, but on a spaceship located in interstellar space.
NASA engineers have successfully activated thrusters aboard Voyager 1, the first human object that has managed to travel beyond the Solar System, after 37 years without using them.
Thanks to this operation, carried out 20,000 million km away, the probe will be able to extend its life between two and three years.
This space probe, the farthest and fastest NASA has currently operational, is the only man-made object in interstellar space, the atmosphere among the stars.
In-flight for almost 40 years, the probe has small devices called impellers to orient itself and communicate with the Earth.
These propellers fire tiny pulses, which last only milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points to our planet.
Now, the Voyager team can use a set of four backup props, inactive since 1980.
“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,” said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
NASA scientists have noticed that since 2014, the spacecraft’0s thrusters used to orient it, called “attitude control thrusters,” have been degrading.
This means that over time, the spacecraft’s thrusters will require more ‘puffs’ in order to give off the same energy.
And regrettably, at a distance of 13 billion miles from Earth, there’s no mechanic shop nearby to get a tune-up.
To solve the issue and prolong the spacecraft’s life, NASA gathered a team of ‘propulsion experts’ to study the issue and come up with a solution.
Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber analyzed different options and predicted how Voyager 1 would respond in different scenarios.
After carefully studying various options, the team agreed on an unusual solution: Try giving the job of orientation to a set of thrusters that had been asleep for 37 years, explains NASA.
“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 Jones, chief engineer at JPL.
On November 28, 2017, NASA scientists fire up four TCM thrusters that had remained inactive for 27 years. After waiting eagerly to see if the plan had worked, on November 29, 2017, the team learned that the TCM thrusters worked perfectly — and just as well as the attitude control thrusters, reports NASA.
“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,” said Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer.
Featured image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech