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NASA fires Voyager 1's thrusters for first time in 37 years

NASA fires up Voyager 1 thrusters after 37 years

Of course, many parts of the Voyager craft still work despite their age - they've been sending reliable telemetry back since launch, including the memorable data in 2012 indicating that Voyager 1 had entered interstellar space. They are located on the back side of the spacecraft in this orientation. And the thrusters had never been tested for the 10-millisecond "puffs" needed for reorientation.

Helping things out was the fact that the same model of thruster used on Voyager 1 was later deployed on Cassini and Dawn probes, meaning NASA had experience with the hardware. According to Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd, the reactivated thrusters should help extend the life of the probe for another "two to three years".

Nasa had grown anxious about the altitude control thrusters on Voyager 1, which have been wearing down. Over time, the thrusters require more puffs to give off the same amount of energy.

In anticipation of that moment, perhaps, a group of engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been kicking the tires on Voyager 1. Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber analyzed options and predicted how the spacecraft would respond in different scenarios.

They have made discoveries such as active volcanoes on Jupiter's moon and the intricacies of Saturn's rings.

The JPL's engineers began to look into alternatives, and found a new way to steer the spacecraft: the probe's trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters.

Voyager 1's primary thrusters have been degrading in the last few years, NASA said in a statement. It did. After almost four decades of dormancy, the Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactured thrusters fired perfectly. The radio waves traveled for 19 hours and 35 minutes before reaching Voyager 1 13 billion miles away; 19 hours and 35 minutes after that, they got the results of their little experiment.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters. And, it seems Voyager's still got a few tricks up its sleeve.

The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January. The spacecraft will have to turn on one heater on each of the four TCM thrusters, putting a further drain on Voyager 1's decaying plutonium power source. When there is no longer enough power to operate the heaters, the team will switch back to the attitude control thrusters. However, we can still communicate with Voyager across that distance.