The Voyager 1 spacecraft has just fired up its backup thrusters for the first time in almost forty years. This wake-up call came from NASA’s decision to reorientate their farthest spacecraft’s antenna toward Earth. While they initially wanted the Voyager 1’s original set of thrusters to reorientate the craft, “the altitude control thrusters” were too degraded, according to the agency.
NASA hadn’t used the spacecraft’s four “trajectory correction maneuver” thrusters since November 1980, when the Voyager 1 flew past Saturn. The team members got them back online this Tuesday to check if they were still operational. According to the agency, the engine test was successful all around.
“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 Todd Barber, a propulsion engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
The Voyager 1 was launched in September 1977 on a trajectory that allowed the plutonium-powered probe to fly by Jupiter and its moons in March 1979, then Saturn in November 1980. Its identical brother, Voyager 2, was launched 16 days after and it too has explored Jupiter and Saturn, as well as Uranus and Neptune.
Located at about 13 billion miles from Earth, the Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to ever enter interstellar space, the place between star systems. In August 2012 the probe left our solar system, and it’s been using its prime thrusters to maintain a strong signal with Earth.
Scientists at NASA did not expect the backup thrusters to function so well, considering the considerable amount of time passed since their first test. While the TCM thrusters were designed to burn continuously for long distances, they had never been used in short bursts for altitude control, according to NASA officials.
According to the agency, Voyager 2 is expected to join its counterpart in interstellar space in the following years.
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