Voyager 1 probe fires long-dormant thrusters in interstellar space

Voyager 1 Fires Up Thrusters After 37 Years. An artist concept depicting one of the twin Voyager spacecraft

If you tried to start a auto that's been sitting in a garage for decades, you might not expect the engine to respond. Since both Voyager 1 and 2 are supposed to last billions of years, the mementos of Earth that they carry could eventually be the only surviving trace of human life. The team will use the thrusters until they can no longer use the heaters, and will then switch back to the attitude control thrusters that they've been relying on. And the thrusters had never been tested for the 10-millisecond "puffs" needed for reorientation.

"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, Voyager project manager.

Ground controllers looked for a solution, and they chose 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 require more puffs to give off the same amount of energy.

On top of the the backups sitting idle for so long, while being 13 billion miles from Earth, there was a third problem: the backups weren't used for "attitude control".

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This week, the scientists and engineers on the Voyager team did something very special. Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber analyzed options and predicted how the spacecraft would respond in different scenarios.

Launched in September 1977, the plutonium-powered probe encountered Jupiter and its moons in March 1979, then flew by Saturn in November 1980, before heading northward out of the ecliptic plane, the disk in which the solar system's planets reside.

The probe does, however, have other thrusters - its "trajectory correction maneuver" (TCM) thrusters were last used as it passed Saturn, to help point Voyager 1's instruments at the ringed gas giant. Now, nearly four decades later, they've come back to life without a hitch to take over for the failing attitude control thrusters.

The set of four small thrusters came online Wednesday after NASA engineers noticed the spacecraft's attitude control thrusters had been degrading for several years. But this past Tuesday, engineers fired them up anyway, and after 19 hours of waiting for the results to transmit from Voyager's antenna to Earth, they learned that it actually worked.

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