Science

Voyager 1's thrusters still after 37 years of sleep

Voyager 1's thrusters still after 37 years of sleep

The aging spacecraft, first launched in 1977, is the fastest and most well-traveled spacecraft ever launched by NASA. So when crucial parts of it start failing, there is nearly no hope.

NASA believes this will extend the lifespan of the Voyager 1 for another two or three years, with its power finally expected to deplete sometime in 2020. It does need them, however, to orient itself in order to communicate with Earth.

Voyager 2 is also on course to enter interstellar space, likely within the next few years, and now, its attitude control thrusters are still functioning well.

Fortunately, those aren't the only thrusters onboard.

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"These thrusters fire in tiny pulses, or 'puffs, ' lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet", NASA explained in a post on its website. The TCMs, on the other hand, fired off continuously when in use. 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. Having slept for almost four decades, the odds seemed low.

On Wednesday, the engineers "learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters", said NASA. NASA knew it needed to tweak its orientation in order to allow the craft to send and receive information, but that's much easier said than done, especially when the thrusters required to make that adjustment haven't even been woken up in almost four decades. The alternative, however, would be to give the Voyager 1 an early retirement.

Thanks to the successful test, Voyager will switch to the backup thrusters in January and will be able to beam data back to Earth a bit longer. Unfortunately, since 2014, NASA has noticed that the primary thrusters on Voyager were burning more and more hydrazine to perform the same course corrections. "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", Todd Barber, a propulsion expert in the team, noted.

"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", he said in a statement. That won't happen anytime soon, though, because Voyager 2's original thrusters are still working fine.