Humanity's Most Distant Traveler Still Going After 37 Years, 13 Billion Miles

Cesar Mills
December 3, 2017

To indeed fly by and point the spacecraft's instruments at a buffet of targets, engineers used "trajectory correction maneuver", thrusters that are indistinguishable in size and functionality to the attitude control thrusters, and are found on the back side of the probe.

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. It did. After almost four decades of dormancy, the Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactured thrusters fired perfectly.

Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer, said that the Voyager team got more thrilled each time with each milestone in the thruster experiment.

Suzanne Dodd, Voyager's project manager at JPL, said that the ability to use those thrusters will extend the spacecraft's life "by two to three years".

Over the past 30 years Voyager 1's primary thrusters - used to orient the spacecraft's communication dish toward Earth - have been seen to require increasing levels of power resources to function. Over the past four decades, as it flew past Jupiter and Saturn and eventually out into the vast reaches of space, it's been using tiny thrusters to position its antenna so it can communicate with Earth.

NASA's Voyager 1 has been drifting farther and farther away from our planet for the past 40 years. Only one problem: the last time they were used was 37 years ago, in 1980. At 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no technician workshop nearby to get a tune-up.

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This additional life is important for mission controllers working with Voyager because the more data they can pull from this spacecraft, the better. 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.

It took 19 hours and 35 minutes for the command to fire its thrusters to reach Voyager 1, and another 19 hours and 35 minutes for NASA to hear back that the engines had worked.

The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January.

The Voyager spacecraft were built by JPL, which continues to operate both.

The spacecraft are powered by radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) that generate heat from the decay of plutonium-238. The team might conduct a similar test with Voyager 2's backups to ensure it can also send data back after it follows its older sibling to interstellar space in a few years' time. 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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