Published: Wed, December 06, 2017
Research | By Francis Brooks

NASA Fires up 40-Year-Old Boosters From 13 Billion Miles Away

NASA Fires up 40-Year-Old Boosters From 13 Billion Miles Away

Engineers wanted to see if these alternate thrusters could point Voyager 1's antenna toward Earth, a job normally handled by a different set that's now degrading.

In order to keep the spacecraft running, its thrusters have to function properly, but engineers weren't sure if the small devices were going to work considering they hadn't been used since November 1980.

NASA has nailed an engine test on a spacecraft 13 billion miles away. The thrusters had not been in use for 37 years, since Voyager 1 made its trip past Saturn. With that in mind, NASA chose to fire the older thrusters up and see if they could take over the attitude control adjustments.

NASA reports that it feels the test went so well that it will most likely do the same for the Voyager 2 spacecraft. As they get old, the thrusters need more puffs to generate a similar amount of energy than before. The team was delighted when the results of their test were resoundingly positive. The "attitude control thrusters" have been in decline since 2014, and are now wasting more propellant than ever.

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"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. At 13 billion miles from earth, the response from Voyager 1 takes 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach the Voyager team, even when the signal travels at the speed of light. "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", propulsion engineer Todd Barber said.

Voyager 1 and 2 achieve 40 years of operation and exploration this August and September. To make the change, Voyager has to turn on one heater per thruster, which requires power - a limited resource for the aging mission.

The additional rocket jets were initially drafted to assist the Voyager 1 spacecraft target its apparatus to planets and moons on its expedition through the solar system.

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

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