Published: Sun, December 03, 2017
Research | By Derrick Holloway

Voyager 1 back on track after firing of old thrusters

Voyager 1 back on track after firing of old thrusters

All of Voyager's thrusters were developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The Voyager missions discovered the first active volcanoes beyond Earth, at Jupiter's moon Io, and hints of a subsurface ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa. These are located on the back of the spacecraft and are identical to the thrusters that they've used so far.

Voyager 1's sibling craft, Voyager 2, is 10.8 billion miles (over 17 million kilometers) from Earth and will likely undergo a similar procedure, though per NASA, its main thruster set is in better condition.

The Voyager team chose to try using the TCM thrusters, which were created to accurately point the spacecraft as it passed Jupiter and Saturn and their moons. The mission celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, but it's not just a lump of metal floating through interstellar space: that baby still runs. Ground control was able to reconfigure them to fire in a milliseconds-long pulse mode; the Verge noted the ability to use the TCM thrusters as a replacement for the main set "should extend [Voyager 1's] life by a couple of years".

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This week, the scientists and engineers on the Voyager team did something very special. The team waited eagerly as the test results traveled through space, taking 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach an antenna in Goldstone, California, that is part of NASA's Deep Space Network. "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.

The JPL's engineers began to look into alternatives, and found a new way to steer the spacecraft: the probe's trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft has fired-up its thruster engines for the first time in 37 years. But because Voyager 1's last planetary encounter was Saturn, the Voyager team hadn't required using the TCM thrusters since November 8, 1980.

The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January.

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The test went so well that not only will Voyager 1 be switching over to the backup thrusters until there's no longer enough power to keep them warm, but they're looking into to doing the same thing for its twin, Voyager 2 - after proper testing, of course.

The spacecraft are powered by radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) that generate heat from the decay of plutonium-238. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as diminished as Voyager 1's, however.

The Voyager spacecraft were built by JPL, which continues to operate both.

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