NASA nails test on Voyager spacecraft, 13 billion miles away

Audrey Hill
December 6, 2017

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.

As of August, Voyager 1 was almost 13 billion miles from Earth, and Voyager 2 about 11 billion miles out.

In its heydays, Voyager 1 has flown by planets, such as Saturn, Jupiter, and also some of their significant moons. The trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters, which have not been used for 37 years, were brought back into play to take over the job. 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. Sure, each of the four the thrusters would need to be heated individually, which would consume even more energy than they normally would.

These small backup thrusters use hydrazine propellant and could be vital to extending Voyager 1's mission. The same kind of thruster, called the MR-103, flew on other NASA spacecraft as well, such as Cassini and Dawn. At 13 billion miles from earth, the response from Voyager 1 takes 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach the Voyager team, even when the signal travels at the speed of light. NASA has successfully fired thrusters aboard the craft on Wednesday, Nov. 29, even after decades of disuse.

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"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", propulsion engineer Todd Barber said. Now, NASA is planning to switch the TCM thrusters on again in January. When there is no longer enough power to operate the heaters, the team will switch back to the attitude control thrusters.

The discovery that the TCM thrusters still work has been the cause for celebration for the Voyager project team. It adds that it might not have to do that soon, as the trusters in use on the Voyager 2 are not as "degraded" as Voyager 1's.

Voyager 1 is in interstellar space and Voyager 2 is now in the "Heliosheath" - the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas.

Other reports by MaliBehiribAe

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