Voyager 1 spacecraft fires up its thrusters after almost 40 years

An artist concept depicting one of NASA's twin Voyager spacecraft. Humanity's farthest and longest-lived spacecraft are celebrating 40 years in August and September 2017

NASA scientists managed to turn the engines running in 1977, the year of the interplanetary station "Voyager 1", that is at a distance of more than 20 billion kilometers from Earth. These "attitude control thrusters", as they are called, have been degrading for three years now, expending a greater amount of energy and shortening Voyager 1's mission lifespan.

Ground controllers sent remote commands to fire up backup thrusters on Voyager 1, the most distant spacecraft to date, CBS News reports. At 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no mechanic shop nearby to get a tune-up.

NASA says the Voyager team is now able to use a set of four backup thrusters which have been dormant since 1980.

The TCMs haven't been in use since 1980, however, when it was needed to stabilize the Voyager 1 during its fly bys of Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters.

The discovery that the TCM thrusters still work has been the cause for celebration for the Voyager project team. The "attitude control thrusters" have been in decline since 2014, and are now wasting more propellant than ever. One interesting aspect of this was that the team waiting to hear a response on the thrusters had to wait 19 hours and 35 minutes for it to reach a Deep Space Network antenna located in California. "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 JPL propulsion engineer.

The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January, it said. It adds that it might not have to do that soon, as the trusters in use on the Voyager 2 are not as "degraded" as Voyager 1's. With this example before them, NASA laid a more ambitious message aboard Voyager 1 and 2, a kind of time capsule, meant to relate a story of our world to aliens.

Voyager 1 is in interstellar space and Voyager 2 is now in the "Heliosheath" - the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas.

The Voyager spacecraft were built by JPL, which continues to operate both. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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