As humanity's first visitor to interstellar space, NASA's Voyager 1 has revealed itself to be a trooper, answering commands that take nearly 20 hours to arrive, and performing routine tasks and transmitting data back (another 20-hour one-way call) to the home planet. In a blog post, the agency explained that Voyager 1's main attitude control thrusters had been degrading, making it hard to reorient the spacecraft so that its antenna points back towards Earth. These thrusters fire in small pulses, lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet.
"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", Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager, said in a statement. Over time, the thrusters need more puffs to give off the equivalent quantity of power. However, the engineers still plan to test out the backup thrusters, but they note that the test isn't urgent.
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.
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Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 and flew past Jupiter and Saturn in 1979 and 1980 respectively. However, since 2014, engineers have found that those thrusters have been wearing down, and aren't as effective. Back then, the TCM thrusters were used in a more continuous firing mode; they had never been used in the brief bursts necessary to orient the spacecraft. But this past Tuesday, engineers fired them up anyway, and after 19 hours of waiting for the results to transmit from Voyager's antenna to Earth, they learned that it actually worked.
The Voyagers will continue on their journeys forever, but their ability to communicate back to Earth to tell the tales of their exploration is limited not only by the thrusters, but by the power sources that provide electricity and warmth to keep the instruments operating.
On Wednesday, the scientists discovered that the TCM thrusters operated flawlessly and just as well as the attitude control thrusters.
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"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test". The mood was one of relaxation, joy and wonder after observing these well-rested thrusters pull up the baton as if no time had moved at all. The team will use the thrusters until they can no longer use the heaters, and will then switch back to the attitude control thrusters that they've been relying on.
The thruster test went so well; the team will likely do a similar analysis on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the counterpart spacecraft of Voyager 1.
It is expected that in the year 40,272, Voyager 1 will come within 1.7 light years of an obscure star in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear or Little Dipper) and in about 40,000 years, Voyager 2 will come within about 1.7 light years of a star called Ross 248, a small star in the constellation of Andromeda. 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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