Voyager 1 fires thrusters not used in 37 years


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Because Voyager 1’s primary attitude thrusters are beginning to show wear (after forty years in space), engineers decided to experiment using a different set of thrusters not used since the spacecraft flew past Saturn in 1980, and found that they worked!

In the early days of the mission, Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter, Saturn, and important moons of each. To accurately fly by and point the spacecraft’s instruments at a smorgasbord of targets, engineers used “trajectory correction maneuver,” or TCM, thrusters that are identical in size and functionality to the attitude control thrusters, and are located on the back side of the spacecraft. But because Voyager 1’s last planetary encounter was Saturn, the Voyager team hadn’t needed to use the TCM thrusters since November 8, 1980. 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.

…On Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, Voyager engineers fired up the four TCM thrusters for the first time in 37 years and tested their ability to orient the spacecraft using 10-millisecond pulses. The team waited eagerly as the test results traveled through space, taking 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach an antenna in Goldstone, California, that is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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

They figure these back-up thrusters will allow them to extend the mission by two or three years. The test also went so well that they now plan to do the same test on Voyager 2, which has still not entered interstellar space.

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10 comments

  • LocalFluff

    Why does it need to use thrusters anymore?

  • LocalFluff: I assume the spacecraft still has to be oriented properly to communicate with Earth.

  • Chris

    I have well over 40 years going and my thrusters still work but I wonder about my attitude!

  • Gary M.

    Old thrusters and attitude. I like this article on many levels.

  • Judy

    Good thing they worked! It would be real expensive to take it into the shop for repairs.

  • Edward

    Judy,
    There is a phrase for that: beyond economical repairs.

    My brother has the family car, bought new in 1976, and when the engine became too expensive to keep running, he decided to turn it into an electric car. It is still running on batteries. It isn’t quite analogous, but it took my brother longer to convert the car than it took the engineers to switch thrusters (but the man-hours may be similar).

    Robert,
    Yes, it is my understanding that the high gain antenna is fixed (does not move with respect to the spacecraft) and the whole spacecraft must be properly oriented in order to communicate to or from Earth. (I’m sure that there are some inappropriate orientation and attitude jokes for this, such as: “is that a thruster in your pocket or are you just happy to talk with me?”)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyager_1#Spacecraft_components

    Four decades and still going. Kind of like the Energizer bunny. They sure knew how to make ’em, in those days. Kudos to the engineers and technicians who made it work so well.

  • Joe

    Amazing considering how harsh the environment it is operating in is, really robust materials and engineering!

  • Edward & Joe:

    My first thought was ‘What a testament to the people.’ I hope those folks are around to see it, because that is very cool.

  • Rick

    Just watched a Netflix documentary on the Viking missions called The Farthest.
    The signals coming back are approximately 1 trillionth of a watt!

  • Kurt

    V-GER LIVES!!!

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