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05 December 2017, 01:53 | Tara Lloyd
Image courtesy NASA JPL-Caltech
The probe now uses its attitude control thrusters to make tiny corrections - firing for only milliseconds at a time - to rotate it to point its antenna towards Earth.
NASA scientists are celebrating after firing a spacecraft's thrusters almost four decades since they were last used.
While the ACMs work, since 2014 they've use more fuel than in the past. However, we can still communicate with Voyager across that distance.
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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"We got more excited with each milestone in the thruster test".
"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, Pasadena, California.
The TCM thrusters were last fired on November 8, 1980, on approach to Saturn, and Voyager 1 used the miniature rocket engines in a more continuous firing mode, not in individual pulses as needed now, NASA officials said.
Man, they just don't build 'em like they used to. Voyager 1 is 13 billion miles from home and is the first man-made object to leave the solar system and enter interstellar space. Now, nearly four decades later, they've come back to life without a hitch to take over for the failing attitude control thrusters. 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 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", says NASA propulsion engineer Todd Barber. The spacecraft will have to turn on one heater on each of the four TCM thrusters, putting a further drain on Voyager 1's decaying plutonium power source.
Scientists expect Voyager 2 to make the crossing into interstellar space within a few years, heading in a different direction from the sun.
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 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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