Antonio Manaytay – Fourth Estate Contributor
Pasadena, CA, United States (4E) – After 40 years of travel into space, and some 13 billion away, Voyager 1 fired up a set of four thrusters on November 29 to reorient itself to continue communicating to Earth.
There was a big possibility that the thrusters would not fire up just like any car’s engine dormant in the garage for almost 40 years. The problem for Voyager’s thrusters there is no automotive repair shop to go to.
Fortunately, the thrusters, known as “attitude control thrusters,” which had been dormant since 1980, rose up to the challenge and extended the life of Voyager 1 for two or three more years.
“With these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years without use, we will be able to extend the life of Voyager 1 spacecraft by two or three years,” Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena in California, said.
The spacecraft, believed to the only human-made object in interstellar space is the farthest and fastest human-made object in space, never failed to communicate with the Earth-based control center for the last 40 years. Thanks in part to the small thrusters, fired in minute pulses rotating the spacecraft so that its antenna would always point to Earth.
NASA engineers had observed signs of deterioration of the thrusters used by Voyager 1 since 2014. The thrusters, according to the engineers working on the project, had required more spark to produce the same amount of energy.
The team of scientists assembled by JPL to solve the problem, after analyzing the different options and how Voyager 1 would respond, recommended an odd solution: Why not fire up the set of thrusters that had been dormant for 37 years? And it did.
“The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters,” chief engineer Chris Jones at JPL said.
TCM thrusters were used by NASA engineers so that the spacecraft could accurately point its instruments to a variety of target during the early days of its mission. TCM stands for “trajectory correction maneuver.” These thrusters, identical in size and features to the attitude control thrusters, are located at the back side of Voyager 1.
The problem, according to Jones, was that the TCM thrusters had not been used since 1980. It was during this time Voyager 1 had its last planetary, which was Saturn. At the time, the TCM thrusters were used on a continuous firing mode but never on a single burst.
The engineers tried the seemingly odd solution. They fired up the TCM thrusters using 10-millisecond pulses on November 28, unsure if it will really work.
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