NASA Uses Voyager 1 Power Thrusters For First Time Since 1980
NASA’s Voyager 1 space probe started its journey just a little more than 40 years ago, making historic fly-bys of Jupiter and Saturn while sending back photographs of our great solar system. The old probe has been doomed since day one to eventually run out of power and drift hopelessly through space for the rest of eternity, but for now, it is still powering along. As a testament to its fortitude, NASA was able to get the engine running for the first time in a while this week.
CNN reports that NASA was able to fire up Voyager 1’s “trajectory correction maneuver” thrusters for the first time since 1980. That is a massive 37 year gap between uses of the thrusters, for those keeping score. According to NASA, they needed to be used to reorient Voyager 1 so its antenna faces the Earth. Otherwise, we cannot communicate with the aging spacecraft.
The four backup thrusters, which had been dormant since Jimmy Carter was president, are located on the back of Voyager 1. The decision to rely on them after almost four decades of neglect came after the regular “attitude control thrusters” started going bad in 2014. “At 13 billion miles from Earth, there’s no mechanic shop nearby to get a tune-up,” as NASA put it.
As if this story already was not enough to make you feel bad next time you cannot get your lawnmower to start, NASA had to use the old thrusters in a way they were not even normally used before 1980. The TCM thrusters were most useful when Voyager 1 was flying by Jupiter and Saturn early in its mission, but at the time, they were used in continuous bursts, rather than small “puffs” of ignition required for slight reorientation maneuvers. NASA’s daring maneuver this week was the first time the TCM thrusters had been used this way, period.
In what must have been an agonizing wait for the Voyager engineers, the signal from the probe took more than 19 hours to reach an antenna on Earth because of the massive distance between the two. In other words, it took almost an entire day for the team to find out if their trick even worked. Thankfully for them, it did.
Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd said the use of these long-dormant thrusters will actually extend the ever-dwindling lifetime of Voyager 1 by two or three years, which is a pleasant development for the space program. In January, Voyager 1 will switch to using the TCM thrusters full-time after nearly 40 years of ignoring them.
Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 has seen numerous sights and achieved some impressive milestones on its long journey. Aside from giving us unprecedented views of Jupiter and Saturn, it became the first man-made object to leave the solar system in 2013. It is now in the lonely void between stars. Thanks to this development, NASA will be able to talk to Voyager for a little bit longer before being forced to say goodbye forever once it runs out of power.