NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft has propelled a set of four control thrusters in the first place in 37 years granting the enduring enquiry, a novel method to point itself on its cruise into interstellar space 13 billion miles from Earth. Voyager is now 13 billion miles from Earth, with transmissions taking 19 hours and 35 minutes each way.
Launched in August and September of 1977, both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 continue to communicate with Earth via the Deep Space Network.
NASA engineers chose to try firing the craft's backup thrusters, which have been dormant for 37 years. They operate in millisecond pulses - what NASA calls "puffs" - to keep Voyager aligned, with a minute thrust of just 85 grams (3 ounces) for high precision.
"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test. 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", said JPL propulsion engineer Todd Barber. Unfortunately, since 2014, NASA has noticed that the primary thrusters on Voyager were burning more and more hydrazine to perform the same course corrections.
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This is done by a series of puffs from thrusters aboard the craft - small puffs that fire only mere milliseconds, and are more than enough to orient Voyager 1 towards our planet, as NASA explained in their news update last Friday, Dec. 1.
To the team's excitement, not only did the TCM thrusters work for attitude control, they worked just as well as the thrusters that had been intended for the objective. They also tested if they can start the orientation process of the spacecraft.
Now travelling far outside our solar system, and with its primary thrusters on their last legs, NASA made a decision to conduct a test on its long-rested back-up system.
NASA believes this will extend the lifespan of the Voyager 1 for another two or three years, with its power finally expected to deplete sometime in 2020. 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.