Almost four decades after they were last used, trajectory thrusters aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft have been fired up successfully. This amazing feat of engineering will add an additional two to three years to the lifespan of Voyager’s ageing power reserves.
Recently celebrating 40 years of exploration, Voyager 1 is currently 21 billion kilometres (13 billion Miles) from Earth. In context, that distance is approximately 141 times that of the distance between Earth and Sun. As a result, the command to fire up Voyagers thrusters took 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach the spacecraft. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California had to then wait an additional 19 hours and 35 minutes to receive confirmation that the thrusters had fired up successfully.
“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 Todd Barber, an engineer at JPL.
The trajectory thrusters aboard Voyager 1 were manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The thrusters were last used 37 years ago when the spacecraft passed by Saturn in 1980.
Moving forward, the thrusters will be used in place of Voyager’s ageing primary thrusters, or “attitude control thrusters”.
The primary thrusters have been utilised aboard Voyager to maintain the correct orientation with Earth required for ongoing communication. However, over the years, these thrusters have required an increasingly large amount of power to operate. As a result, switching over to the spacecraft’s trajectory thrusters to maintain Voyagers communications link will significantly extend its operational lifespan.
Using trajectory thrusters to orientate Voyager is an unusual solution that took significant research and testing to devise. JPL chief engineer, Chris Jones explained that “The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters.”
Following the success of firing up trajectory thrusters aboard Voyager 1, JPL teams plan to attempt the same procedure for Voyager 2.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech