NASA successfully fires Voyager 1 thrusters after 37 years

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For the first time in 37 years and billions of miles traveled, NASA successfully fired up a set of thrusters on the Voyager 1 spacecraft. The thrusters had been idle for 37 years, since Voyager 1 flew past Saturn.

This is done by a series of puffs from thrusters aboard the craft - small puffs that fire only mere milliseconds, and are more than enough to orient Voyager 1 towards our planet, as NASA explained in their news update last Friday, Dec. 1. Voyager 1 also has "trajectory correction maneuver" thrusters or TCMs, but they worked differently and were used for a different goal, despite having the same build. The same kind of thruster, called the MR-103, flew on other NASA spacecraft as well, such as Cassini and Dawn. They reconfigured the whole system to fire 10-millisecond pulses, or brief bursts, to orient the spacecraft on 28 November and received the signals of the successful firing after almost 20 hours on 29 November. Then they waited 19 hours, 35 minutes for the test results to arrive at an antenna in Goldstone, California.

They looked for possible solutions and finally settled for starting a set of four thrusters that are identical in size and functionality but have been dormant for 37 years. "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. NASA scientists and propulsion experts weren't also sure if the thrusters would work in short bursts, if they worked at all.

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The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January. Projected in September 1977, the plutonium controlled investigation confronted Jupiter and its moons in March 1979, and then glided by Saturn in November 1980, prior to making way towards northward out of the ecliptic plane, the indistinguishable Voyager 2 spacecraft made around of Jupiter and Saturn, then went on to traverse Uranus and Neptune. They will likely also conduct similar tests on the backup thrusters on Voyager 2. 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.

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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