Published: Sun, December 03, 2017
Science | By Cecil Little

NASA fires 'Voyager 1' after 37 years

NASA fires 'Voyager 1' after 37 years

In a blog post, the agency explained that Voyager 1's main attitude control thrusters had been degrading, making it hard to reorient the spacecraft so that its antenna points back towards Earth.

All of Voyager's thrusters were developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The probe began its epic journey on September 5, 1977, sending us back a wealth of information, including some stunning photos of Saturn and Jupiter and their many moons. 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.

As JPL said, "at 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no mechanic shop nearby to get a tune-up".

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To reawaken these dormant thrusters the team had to go back to the original Voyager documentation. Ground control was able to reconfigure them to fire in a milliseconds-long pulse mode; the Verge noted the ability to use the TCM thrusters as a replacement for the main set "should extend [Voyager 1's] life by a couple of years".

Experts at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California chose to turn to four backup thrusters that were last used on Nov 8, 1980.

It is expected that in the year 40,272, Voyager 1 will come within 1.7 light years of an obscure star in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear or Little Dipper) and in about 40,000 years, Voyager 2 will come within about 1.7 light years of a star called Ross 248, a small star in the constellation of Andromeda.

The secondary thrusters worked perfectly, orienting the probe just as the scientists had hoped. The mood was one of relaxation, joy and wonder after observing these well-rested thrusters pull up the baton as if no time had moved at all.

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Around 2025, Voyager's radioactive power source will expire and all contact will be lost.

The spacecraft are powered by radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) that generate heat from the decay of plutonium-238.

In 2014, mission managers started noticing that some of Voyager 1's still in service thrusters - called attitude control thrusters - weren't working in top form, NASA said.

Voyager 2 is also on course to enter interstellar space, likely within the next few years. JPL operates Voyager and the Deep Space Network (DSN) that receives the signals. 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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